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.

Girl and her dog

Today was the winter’s first BPC Day: a day so cold, I wore my Big Puffy Coat.

I’ve lived in New England long enough, I have a closet full of winter coats. There’s the green fleece jacket I wear when the temperature is in the 40s and 50s, the pink jacket I wear when the temperature is in the 30s, the mid-length brown coat I wear when the temperature is in the 20s, and the Mother of All Coats: a purple, full-length down coat I wear when the temperature is in the teens, single digits, and below.

My Big Puffy Coat is as warm and cumbersome as a down comforter: imagine walking around swaddled in all your bedding. It has a hood, which I typically wear over a knit beret: on BPC Days, it takes a hat and a hood to stay warm.

If I zip my BPC all the way up, I don’t need a scarf, as the collar covers my throat and chin…and since my BPC has deep, fleece-lined pockets, I can get away with wearing thin knit gloves instead of thick Bernie mittens.

It was 8 degrees when I walked Roxy this morning, but tomorrow the temperature is supposed to rise to the mid-30s, and on Thursday we’ll enjoy a 40-degree thaw.

This means I’ll repeatedly swap one coat for another over the next few days: not only do I have a closet full of winter coats, each one has a hat in the sleeve and a pair of gloves and a roll of dog-poop bags in the pockets. It’s important to be prepared for whatever weather any given dog-walk brings.


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.


Monthly letters to myself - 2020 edition

This morning I sorted through stationery, bundling the monthly letters I wrote to myself in 2020 and making room for the letters I’ll write to myself in 2022. This is a habit I’ve kept for the past few years: every month, I read a letter I wrote the previous year, then I write a letter to my Future Self.

I’m realizing my perennial reluctance to set New Year’s Resolutions isn’t based on any reluctance to set goals for myself–I set goals for myself all the time. Instead, this reluctance stems from an aversion to setting new goals, the whole spirit of New Year’s resolutions resting on the attitude of “out with the old, in with the new.”

I don’t want to start any new habits in 2022; instead, I want to continue cultivating the habits that have sustained me so far. Instead of “out with the old,” I want to continue in with the old.

Every year, I set the same basic goals for myself: read 50 books, write daily, blog more, and get a certain number of steps (currently, my daily step goal is 17,000). Every year I also resolve to take lots of pictures: at least one a day.

Looking back on the past few years, I’ve kept these goals, mostly. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve journaled nearly every day, and I have a shelf of notebooks to show for it. I wear a Fitbit to track my steps, and I use Goodreads to track the books I’ve read. For the past few years, I’ve religiously taken at least one photo every day even though I’ve been largely remiss about publicly posting those photos.

The only goal I continue to struggle with is the intention to blog more regularly. Given the choice between posting to my blog and writing in my journal, my journal always wins. If I had a secretary to transcribe each day’s scribbles so I could easily share them online, I’d have no shortage of things to share. But since I am my own secretary, editor, and muse, there are rarely enough hours in the day.

Every new year, I tell myself that THIS is the year when all this daily writing–all the journal-keeping and blog-posting–will result in an actual Book, “publish a book” being the biggest un-checked item on what is probably the world’s shortest bucket list. But like the opening montage in the movie Up where one mishap after another prevents Carl and Ellie from taking their dream trip to Paradise Falls, the elusive Book I presumably have in me is perpetually pushed to the back burner.

The last print book I finished in 2021 was Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, where the Book within a boy named Benny literally cries out to be written. Unlike Benny, my Book has yet to speak to me, at least in any language I can hear. But my notebooks still cry to be filled, so I continue to show up at their pages.


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.


Windblown

As the end of the term approaches, my first-year students are working on a Theory of Writing project that asks them to consider how they work as writers.

My students at Babson College have been working on this assignment for several weeks, and my students at Framingham State are just starting. In both cases, I asked students to read an essay by novelist Zadie Smith in which she talks about her writing craft.

One of the things Smith does in her essay is describe the phases of a novel’s composition. In discussing this essay with my students, I asked them to consider the steps or stages they go through when working on a paper, and I in turn considered the steps I go through when crafting a blog post.

  1. Start by writing by hand, in a notebook, about whatever comes to mind.
  2. Go back and type up relevant or usable bits from that hand-written first draft, wordsmithing sentences as I go.
  3. Re-read the entire thing, adding transitions, deleting redundant or clunky passages, and adding additional paragraphs or a conclusion as necessary
  4. Add a photo, decide on a tagline for social media, and publish.

This first approach is the ideal workflow for me: start by writing by hand, usually with no (or only a vague) idea of what I want to say. But when life is busy, sometimes the process looks more like this:

  1. Open Google Docs
  2. Start typing on a broad topic, agonizing over sentences as I write
  3. Step 3: Re-read, revise, and post as described above.

This second approach is quicker insofar as I eliminate the step of writing by hand…but it’s more tortuous. If I start with writing by hand, my thoughts flow more quickly and naturally. For me, thinking on paper is akin to thinking out loud, but safer: only I see that initial scribbled draft. When I write by hand in my journal, I’m chasing ideas, not wordsmithing sentences. This means my ideas come out fresh and raw, with the reassuring knowledge that I’ll make them pretty later.

If I go straight to typing, my attitude toward composition is different. I’m more hesitant and halting. I pause over sentences and go back to re-read, spending as much time going backwards as going forwards. Although these typed drafts are still rough, they feel more formal and intimidating. I’m more mindful of audience–that is, the fact that someone will eventually read this–and that makes me spend more time hemming and hawing over every sentence..

If blog-writing Process One is my most ideal writing scenario and Process Two is what I do when life gets busy, blog-writing Process Three is what I rely upon when I’m even busier. When I’m really, really busy, I sometimes post directly to the WordPress app on my phone, typing with my thumbs to comment on a picture I’ve uploaded. But this third approach is so far from my ideal, I hesitate to even mention it.


Flags

I’m superstitious when it comes to Mondays. I have an unproven theory that if I start Monday organized and on-top of my schedule, the rest of the week will go smoothly, but if I start Monday scrambling, the rest of the week is doomed. As goes Monday, so goes the week.

Today I fell behind schedule before I’d even left the house. Morning chores took longer than I’d planned, and I left home later than I’d like. I arrived at my post-holiday COVID test a few minutes late, only to discover a long line of students waiting ahead of me. As I stood in line answering emails on my phone, my wrist buzzed to alert me to the office hours I was supposed to be holding. It’s never a good omen when you’re late to your own office hours.

And yet, after my COVID test I found a parking spot–the last one–right outside the building where I teach. And when I entered the building where my office is located, the elevator that had been out of service all last week was fixed. I arrived at my office ten minutes late, and nobody was in the hall waiting for me.

I might survive the week after all.