Elegant

Whenever a student or colleague asks via email how I’m doing, I often respond with the generic statement “We live in interesting times.” On the surface, J and I are doing well: we both are healthy, we both are (currently) employed, and we both are adapting to this curious self-quarantine we’ve kept for more than 50 days.

But under the surface, these are strange days. I read the news with a mixture of sadness, horror, and outrage. At any given moment, I alternate between wringing my proverbial hands and rolling up my figurative sleeves. I intentionally keep myself busy with work, housework, and pet tasks. Every day, I look forward to the afternoon walks J and I take to get exercise and fresh air, and every week, I look forward to the drives around the neighborhood we take to keep each of our cars running.

J and I are, in other words, settling into something that passes as “almost normal”…and that itself seems strange. It almost doesn’t seem right to turn a global pandemic into a domestic routine, but ordinary rituals are the only way I know how to make sense of the world and my place in it. For good or ill, I am a creature of habit, and I take a surprising amount of solace knowing my daily routine is one thing I can control in a world of unknowns.

Backyard buckeye buds

Today is the fortieth day that J and I have been self-isolating at home. Etymologically speaking, a true quarantine lasts forty days, but ours will last much longer. The first forty days are just the start of it.

I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the mire and clay.

In my childhood religion classes, we learned that in the Bible, forty was shorthand for “a very long time.” Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and nights, and it rained on Noah’s ark for just as long. Our current quarantine feels a bit like both: a long, dry spell in the desert, sustained by prayer, and a crowded, sometimes smelling stint in a storm-tossed vessel full of creatures seeking safe haven.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?

How did Jesus stay alive in the desert, and how did Noah keep all his passengers fed? In the Bible, these are questions left unasked and unanswered, trusted to the authority of faith. But during this actual quarantine, they are real questions that occasionally keep me up at night. What happens if we can’t get groceries while we’re isolating at home, what if our medicines or other supplies run out, and what if one or both of us get sick and have to shelter at home in the absence of available hospital beds?

He set my feet upon a rock
He made my footsteps firm
Many will see–many will see and hear

In the absence of definitive answers, I try to push such questions aside. This morning I found myself humming U2’s “40,” a rock anthem the band used to perform at the end of every concert. Its lyrics come from Psalm 40, which itself is a song of longing.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long, how long, how long
How long to sing this song?

How long will this quarantine last? Certainly more than forty days, which is itself a very long time. I’ve decided “how long” isn’t a helpful question: like a child asking “Are we there yet” on a long car drive, “how long” is a question that is both unanswerable and annoying. You miss a lot of scenery if you’re only asking “how long.” Instead, each day you sing whatever song that day delivers.

Maple leaves

Last night I dreamed I was at a bustling marketplace: a place similar to Boston’s Faneuil Hall or Seattle’s Pike Place Market, but not actually either. It was a setting I couldn’t identify in real life, but in dreamtime it was somewhere I’d been to before, albeit not recently.

In my dream, I went to this marketplace to browse: I was just looking. I walked among other shoppers without buying anything: I had no shopping list and no urgent need. I was by myself and free to duck into any store that looked interesting. I was enjoying the simple anonymity of being among other random shoppers: no rush or hurry, just gentle mingling.

At one point, I passed a corridor I’d never had time to explore. It was a passage I had always hurried past or through, as it was a narrow connector between two shops you could more easily reach from outside. In this corridor I found a favorite shop I thought had closed. It carried the kind of jewelry and beautiful tchotkes I adore: paperweights and snowglobes, pottery mugs and wooden puzzles.

Then through the nonlinear logic of dreams, I wandered into a science museum, admiring exhibits with no particular agenda or hurry: a desultory ramble through the land of Look Don’t Touch. Next I found myself in a quiet church in between services, with random strangers lighting candles and praying quietly in pews. I blessed myself from the communal font and gently touched a rosary someone had left beside a stack of church bulletins.

Only on my way home did I remember I was supposed to be in quarantine, the strangers around me all potential vectors of invisible contagion. After more than a month of meticulous isolation, I would have to start my quarantine anew, worrying for fifteen days whether I had been exposed to sickness by the innocent act of walking unmasked among strangers.

Was it worth it, this risk of contagion in exchange for a casual afternoon spent window-shopping like we used to do without worry? The dream ended before I could decide.

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.

Forsythia

Today the Spring semester resumed at Framingham State, just as it resumed last week at Babson College. Now that all of my classes have gone online, I’m settling into the new not-normal of a suddenly-online semester, holding virtual office hours Monday through Thursday, checking discussion board forums the other days, and still doing the same amount of grading.

On social media during the early days of self-isolation, friends relished the thought of long-procrastinated projects they hoped to do during quarantine, with so much time for reading, crafting, cooking, or writing the Great American Novel. But from where I sit in the work-from-home suburbs, I don’t see an open expanse of free time, just a rearrangement of my work and leisure hours.

I’m still working during these work-from-home days; I’m just working differently. I still teach five classes; I just don’t see my students in person any more. I still am employed part-time by two different colleges; I just don’t set foot on campus.

Self-isolating at home with a husband, two dogs, and eight cats, I still have to do all the household chores necessary to keep everyone alive and healthy, but the way I do those chores has changed. Gone are the days of stopping for a bag of cat litter on my way home from campus, and gone are the days of making the weekly shopping list over lunch at our favorite pub before going to the grocery store and picking up take-out pizza on Friday night.

Now we rely on delivery services (and delivery workers, whom we tip generously) to bring whatever food, pet supplies, or other essentials are in stock. In the days before COVID-19, we set a menu then shopped for the necessary ingredients; now, we set the menu based on whatever food is actually available.

In many ways, our life and rituals are largely unchanged: J has worked from home for years, and the things I used to do in a college classroom were a small part of what my job as a college instructor actually entails. In the “old-normal” days, we bought many household staples in bulk, simply for convenience. In these “new not-normal” days, buying a month’s worth of pet food, cleaning supplies, and other essentials is either smart or selfish, depending on your perspective.

I feel bad for couples who were still dating when COVID-19 divided our days into “before” and “after.” Gone are the days of going to clubs, concerts, and other crowded gatherings; gone are the days of actually “going out.” Instead, even young couples have fast-forwarded to middle-aged married life, when the best partner isn’t the flashiest dresser, smoothest talker, or most nimble dancer, but the one who can fix a toilet, quiet the kids, and cobble together a meal from whatever’s ready to expire in the pantry.

J and I are lucky to be able to work from home, as we both have pre-existing conditions that make us medically vulnerable. I say a silent prayer of gratitude whenever a car pulls up with this week’s grocery order or another shipment of pet supplies. (Forget about hoarding toilet paper: when you live in a house with eight cats, kitty litter is the most valuable household staple.)

My dad was a truck-driver, a job that is impossible to do from home; I’m humbled to remember that going to college is what made it possible for me to make a living (and choose to quarantine) in a way he never could have. As I meet virtually with the students I used to share a classroom with, I am awed to think I could be helping them make a similar transition from the old-normal of what their parents do to the new-normal of their aspirations.

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.

Do more of what makes you awesome

This past weekend, J and I walked to our local elementary school and back, then we took my car for a short Sunday drive. Because of the Coronavirus, we’ve been self-isolating at home for more than a week, leaving the house only to take the dogs out and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, so going for both a walk and a drive, no matter how short, was a welcome relief from our self-imposed quarantine.

At the local elementary school, nobody was around. Normally on a sunny weekend, there would be kids playing on the playground equipment, but signs strictly forbade this: too many touch surfaces. A house across from the school had an encouraging message drawn on the driveway with sidewalk chalk, with no sign of the kids or parents responsible for the message.

I bought a new car nearly a month ago, only to have it sit sadly in our driveway during this period of social distancing. On Sunday, J and I took “Trudy Subaru” for a short drive to keep her engine running, driving past the local hospital then up Route 16 to Commonwealth Avenue and back. The hospital was quiet, with only a handful of cars in the outside lots and no emergency vehicles coming or going. From the outside, it looked like a sleepy Sunday afternoon, with no obvious sign of an impending pandemic.

Commonwealth Avenue, on the other hand, was bustling with families, couples, and singles out walking, jogging, pushing strollers, and escorting happy dogs, each person or group keeping the requisite six feet between themselves and others. On Monday morning, Governor Baker would announce a stay-at-home advisory that closes nonessential businesses but still allows people to go outside and enjoy the fresh air, and on Sunday it was clear folks were relishing the right to be Healthy and Happy on a brisk and bright March day.

I always describe April’s Marathon as being Massachusetts’ unofficial celebration of spring, with folks and families coming out to socialize while watching a race that is in some ways just an excuse to go outside and let down the usual New England reserve. This year, the Marathon has been postponed until September, an unimaginably distant time, so it made sense that this weekend, after a long week of social distancing, our neighbors were doing exactly what they’d do on Marathon Monday, minus the actual race.

On Sunday, J and I took a drive for the car’s sake, but it was just as good for us to get out of the house and rev our inner engines.

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?

Budding forsythia

After spending much of yesterday afternoon going to multiple stores to do the weekly grocery shopping I’d usually do at one, today it was a relief to stay home. Instead of walking to lunch as we normally do, J and I took a sunny afternoon walk around the neighborhood, and we weren’t the only ones. With museums and libraries closed, concerts and sporting events canceled, and store shelves emptied of goods, walking in the open air is one of the few things we can still safely do.

Lilac leaves

The irony of this weird and unsettling week is this: the weather has been beautiful, the lilacs are starting to leaf, and the forsythias are almost ready to burst into bloom. Outside, March is settling into spring; inside, we stay glued to devices that deliver a constant stream of bad and worrying news.

When J and I went walking this afternoon, it was a pleasant relief to stop at a nearby intersection, stand in the street, and talk to a handful of neighbors who, like us, were shaking off a weekend case of pandemic-inspired cabin fever. As we traded stories of grocery lines and plans for telecommuting, we stood in a wide circle with the prescribed six feet between us: a brief spot of socializing in the age of social distancing.