Life lessons


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.

Bloodroot in bloom

Today was sunny and cold, with winds rattling the windows. During these days of self-isolation, I’ve come to think of our house as a storm-tossed ship: all our energy is focused on keeping the elements out and the creatures inside safe, well-provisioned, and sheltered.

This morning as I wrote my journal pages, a chickadee or titmouse called right outside my window: not a song, but an alarm note. Chickadees and titmice have distinctly different songs, but their call notes are similar. Since the two birds often feed together, they share the same language of alarm: hey, watch out!

Earlier today I watched Congressman Joe Kennedy’s daily Facebook Live update, which he posted from his home. He talked about the surge of COVID-19 cases in Chelsea, MA: an outbreak fueled by the high percentage of essential workers living in densely packed neighborhoods there. It’s difficult to practice social distancing if you live in multigenerational households packed to the brim due to a shortage of affordable housing.

Kennedy gave his update in English and then in Spanish: many of the working class residents of Chelsea are immigrants. In English or Spanish, the message is the same. All bodies are vulnerable to infection, but some lives have been deemed by society to be disposable. If a job is essential, why isn’t the worker who does that job essential as well?

Viruses are natural, but inequality is human-made. Sickness preys on the most vulnerable: the poor, the medically compromised, the immigrants who are too scared to venture into an emergency room. We all wait anxiously for a vaccine against the Coronavirus, but when or how will we inoculate society against a plague of injustice?

Magnolia-to-be

I’m writing these lines during today’s virtual office hours. Although all of the required components in my suddenly-online classes are asynchronous, I hold real-time office hours in case my students have quick questions. So as I write these words, I’m sitting in front of my laptop, webcam on and headset donned, just in case anyone drops by to say hello. It’s a strange new ritual in this age of remote learning, a kind of vigil I keep just in case any of my students wants to talk.

This is, of course, comparable to what I used to do during my face-to-face office hours: I’d sit in my office and wait for students to show up. During that time, I’d try to be productive, grading papers, prepping classes or answering emails, just as right now I’m writing these lines.

But online office hours feel different because of their virtual nature. When someone comes to my office on campus, they enter a space we subsequently share, but during virtual office hours, there is no shared physical space. Instead, I sit in front of my laptop in my home office with Roxy napping on the bed behind me, and my students sit in front of their laptop webcams in their own spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, couches.

It’s oddly intimate while being (literally) remote. Occasionally a grandmother wanders in with a plate of food or a kid sister pops into view, eager to show off a painting she made. There is a brief screen-sized glimpse into another person’s world as if through a window: here a student I knew only in the neutral space of an academic classroom or administrative office exists on their home turf, or at least wherever they find themselves right now, for now.

I feel the same kind of intimacy when I hear or see radio and TV reporters calling in from home these days, or experts and interviewees appearing as tiny video squares from their attic offices, basement dens, or spare bedrooms. Suddenly we are sharing spaces even while we are apart, our connection mediated through screens both large and small.

These days, the word “screen” is oddly evocative, for originally screens were a veil pulled opaquely to provide privacy between two contiguous worlds: you on one side, me on the other. Neighbors can hear one another through screens; priests can hear confessions from anonymous penitents, and absolutions can be offered.

A screen is also where we project ourselves or our hopes, dreams, and fantasies. Something that is a keeper-apart of faces and spaces is at the same time an open place–a proverbial blank canvas–where we can show and perform.

In this sense, holding virtual office hours is an act of hope, even if (especially if) no one shows up. It’s the waiting that makes it sacred: a kind of virtual vigil where presence itself is its own sacrament. Here I am, holding a space open for you, wherever you are.

In this sense, holding virtual office hours is like showing up at the page or taking three sips of tea before giving a Zen interview: you don’t know what will flow from your pen or who will walk through the door.

Jolly Eggs after rain

I’ve started keeping track of the days J and I have been social-distancing at home: today, we’re on Day 13. Because both J and I can work from home, our daily life is largely unchanged except for an ongoing, low-grade worry over what is happening, what might happen, and what might come after that.

One of the things keeping me sane is my daily schedule: a predictable routine I call my liturgy of the hours. Monastic life directly depends upon a set schedule, religiously followed: when you are never confronted with the question “What should I do next,” you are free to focus full-heartedly on the task at hand. Now that J and I are retreating at home, my life feels monastic in many ways: as I explained to a friend recently, we’re all Thomas Merton now, living, working, and praying within the four walls of our new freedom.

For years–most of my adult life, it seems–I’ve struggled to find a schedule that suits me: one that is structured enough to keep me productive but loose enough to allow for spontaneity. When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center in the 1990s, my life as a wife, graduate student, and teaching assistant was book-ended by formal Zen practice. Most mornings, I’d wake at 5:30 am to bow, sit, and chant; most evenings, I’d return to the Dharma room at 7:00 pm to chant and sit some more. Sandwiched between these practice sessions was the rest of my life: it was as if I were a layperson by day and a Zen nun in the morning and evening.

This regular structure suited me for the two-and-a-half years my then-husband and I lived at the Zen Center, but the logistics were less than ideal. Living as a part-time nun was fine and good, but my grad school obligations and teaching duties bled beyond the usual 9:00 – 5:00 time frame. Beginning and ending the day with Zen practice sounds good in theory, but in reality I was constantly sleep-deprived from too many late nights spent either writing or grading papers.

I no longer follow a Zen Center schedule; instead, my schedule centers around the creatures with whom I share a household. When do the cats need their insulin, and when does Roxy need to go outside to pee? Instead of setting my own schedule, these days our pets tell me what to do and when…and by following that set-but-spontaneous cadence, I find my entire life naturally falls into line.

First forsythias

This afternoon, a teaching colleague emailed to ask for any advice I might share as he transitions his face-to-face class online. Since so many instructors find themselves in a similar situation right now, I thought I’d share my response:

Although I spent more than a decade teaching fully-online classes elsewhere, I’ve never taught a face-to-face class that then suddenly went online. Ideally, you’d design an online class from the ground up versus on-the-fly. So don’t set your expectations too high: at this point, you’re trying to salvage some sort of decent learning experience out of a crappy situation.

More than anything, you want to be human and humane. I think this pretty much sums it up.

The more you can do asynchronously, the better. Let me repeat that: THE MORE YOU DO ASYNCHRONOUSLY, THE BETTER.

I know everyone is fascinated with the “shiny new toy” aspect of Zoom, Collaborate, and other real-time meeting tools, but I’d under-emphasize those. Students are going to be living at home with family, roommates, significant others, children, shared (or no) Internet connections, unpredictable schedules, and a pandemic that might affect the health of their loved ones and/or themselves. Adding the learning curve of new technology and the stress of real-time scheduling is NOT helpful.

When you’re teaching online, less is more, less is more, less is more. Or as Thoreau would say, Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The Blackboard discussion board is your friend. Students can post asynchronously whenever they are able, and they can post from their phone with the Blackboard app. Provide your students with clear expectations about discussion board participation. Emphasize that in an online class, “participation” and “attendance” are the same thing. You can’t sit in the back row and lurk: to be present, you need to participate.

In converting my face-to-face classes, I’ve cut a LOT of content and activities that work well in person but just won’t work online. In an online course, there is no need to “fill class time” with activities. Decide which final deliverables are essential, divide those into weekly chunks, and jettison the rest.

For one of my classes, this means each Monday-Sunday module features one discussion board and one writing assignment due on Sunday night. (These writing assignments are pieces of a larger research project.) THAT IS ALL.

We aren’t doing any real-time class sessions. If there is something I absolutely have to teach “in person,” I’ll record a video that students can watch whenever is convenient to them. Each Monday morning, I’ll post everything students need for that week’s module, including a checklist of relevant tasks and due-dates, links to whatever they need, etc. It’s up to students to plan out how they manage their time and work-load for each week’s deliverables.

The only real-time component I’m keeping is virtual office hours. I’ll have set times twice a week when I’ll be available for students to talk via WebEx or Blackboard Collaborate. (Skype is also an option many students are already familiar with.) If students want to “meet” at other times, we can schedule that, but I’m not requiring anyone to meet me in real time. Students’ schedules are too complicated for that, especially during these crazy times.

Students won’t remember whether you were a tech-guru who was a master of online technology; they’ll remember whether you were kind, humane, and helpful during an unbelievably stressful time.

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have additional questions, and STAY HEALTHY.

Contrails

In this time of social distancing and self-isolation, there is a meme going around that suggests introverts have been waiting their whole life for this moment. This might be true, but so is this: Buddhists of all stripes–introverted and extroverted alike–are similarly well-prepared for these extraordinary times, as hunkering down is something Buddhists do religiously.

When I contemplate the next few weeks (or more) of social isolation–the staying home, the sheltering in place–what comes to mind is a Zen retreat. Going on a retreat turns the simple choice of staying inside into an intentional spiritual practice. Right now, countless people who don’t consider themselves Buddhists are waking up to the realization that the Universe has signed them up for a long Zen retreat without asking first.

How do you turn self-isolation into a retreat? You make a schedule and stick to it. You intentionally alternate sitting and walking. You pay attention to mental hygiene, which is as important to your sanity as hand-washing is to your physical health. You cultivate gratitude and embrace boredom. And in the end, you recognize your intrinsic, unavoidable connection with all sentient beings in this contagious and contaminated world.

Yesterday on a video conference call with some other professors, a colleague remarked that he was diligently recording brief video lectures so that when or if he gets sick, his online course will carry on without him. While others are hoarding toilet paper and cans of soup, this colleague is preparing for the inevitability of his own mortality.

A split second after my colleague made this remark, a thought appeared: how will I continue teaching if I grow deathly ill and die…or worse yet, how will I continue teaching if any of my students were to sicken then disappear? This is a thought I’ve never contemplated: in all my years of teaching, the hyperbolic language of “surviving the semester” and even simply “passing the class” were innocuous and mundane. It’s not like my class or any other is a matter of life and death.

But then again, isn’t everything in our daily lives a matter of life and death? My earlier assumption that there would inevitably be a “next semester”–an “after” that follows this “before”–now seems terribly glib, presumptuous, and naive. Who was I just last week that I took so much for granted?

The thing about Zen retreats is this: absolutely nothing happens. You stay inside and spend hours staring at the floor. Every day, you eat the same boring breakfast–always oatmeal–at the same boring time; every day you show up and follow the same boring schedule whether you feel like it or not. You do this because when you sign up for a Zen retreat, you choose to put yourself in a situation where you have no choice.

None of us chose to live in these interesting times: we all are trapped in a situation that none of us willingly signed up for. But if self-isolation follows the model of a Zen retreat, here is what will happen, eventually: a couple days, weeks, or months into this crazy exile, something unforeseen and even magical will happen. Eventually, if you stop fighting against inevitabilities, you will see nothing more than what is actually there. You will taste the same bowl of oatmeal for the very first time, and you will notice anew that this morning’s angle of sunlight on the floor is somehow just like yesterday’s while being entirely unique.

None of us signed up for this: we were thrust into a dying world the moment we were born. But now that we are stuck here, isolated in our separate homes but united in our shared mortality, what will we do with this fragile moment?

Journaling at Burdick's

This morning J had to wake before dawn for a work call, so after I finished my morning tasks, I drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, sat one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square to write my morning journal pages at Burdick’s Cafe.

Although I was sleepy at the Zen Center, the brisk walk to Harvard Square and a small cup of high-octane Burdick’s dark chocolate woke me right up. Practicing at the Zen Center always feels like plugging into a power source: even during meditation sessions when my body nods and dozes, I can feel my inner battery charging with every breath. There’s something energizing about returning to a familiar place and a familiar practice, like climbing back into a well-worn saddle.

Reflective self portrait at Burdick's

When I lived at the Zen Center, I’d often go to Harvard Square, claim a table at a restaurant or cafe, and write in the bustling anonymity of a clean, well-lighted place. Burdick’s on a Sunday morning nicely suits this purpose. You can generally find a table for one if you wait for quiet couples to finish their beverages then bundle up to leave, and once you’re settled in, the waitstaff doesn’t care if you take a half hour or so to nurse your hot chocolate over journal pages or the morning paper.

Some days I bring stationery so I can write a quick, chocolate-fueled letter; today, it was just me and my notebook. Like meditation, journal-keeping is a habit I’ve practiced for decades, so doing it generates its own energy, like a turbine turning a gear. Meditation fills my lungs, walking gets my blood flowing, writing stimulates my brain, and high-octane dark chocolate gives me a buzz that lasts the whole day. This is how you weather a sleepy morning that started before dawn.

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