April 30, 2020: A Memorable Birthday

Do you remember your 14th birthday? I don’t. But I am sure that just about all that mattered was spending time with people my own age who didn’t live in my house. I probably unwrapped a couple cassette tapes gifted by family and close friends: Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi, Van Halen. Most likely, I ventured downtown with my Sony walkman, strutting to music, quarters in my pocket, heading to Playland (The arcade and place to be). Being quarantined at that age (especially in the mid 80’s) would have been painful. 

Even though today’s teens have more ways to connect, it’s still crushing to celebrate a birthday during the pandemic. And though Maddie knows there are far greater things to worry about, that in the grand scheme of things, her birthday is not urgent or pressing, the situation is still upsetting. When you’re 14, trying to establish independence and a clearer sense of personal identity, being stuck at home for months is physically and emotionally confining. And Maddie was feeling this yesterday as she flopped on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. 

I asked her how things were going. 

“I’m bored,” she said. 

“Yeah, I’m sorry your birthday is in the middle of this mess.”

“It’s ok. I feel selfish for feeling sad about it.”

I listened and couldn’t wait for 5:30 to arrive. Maddie was oblivious to the fact that we’d planned two surprises for her. The first would be a parade of honking and waving from teachers, family, and friends. The second was a video compilation of messages and movies made from all the important people in her life. I somehow managed to keep both things a secret, and when Maddie and I sat on the front porch to play cards at 5:30, the fun began. 

The energy, smiles, and laughter of the parade was electric. Maddie bounced and waved, getting as close as possible to the cars without making contact with anyone. Her friends held signs out of sunroofs, threw gifts onto the front lawn, and looped around the block to smile and wave again and again. 

After we settled back inside, I told her we had one more surprise. We watched a twenty-minute video filled with direct messages of love, shared memories, and hilarious movies crafted by aunts and uncles, starring Maddie’s adorable younger cousins. There were skits by her grandparents, and a beautiful song penned and performed by her youngest aunt. By the end, we were all wiping our eyes. Except, of course, Maddie’s 15-year-old brother, who refused to participate in the video. 

But, to our surprise, he handed her a gift he’d put away for her over a month ago. Taped to the box was a handwritten card. Coming from him, this was a monumental token of generosity. 

Maybe, when we’ve been robbed this long of personal connection with friends, just being showered with direct messages of love and appreciation for twenty minutes cracks us open. 

If nothing else, Maddie’s quarantine birthday will be a memorable one. As she caught her breath and continued to thank and hug everyone in the house, she said, “I never thought this could be one of the best birthdays ever.”

April 29, 2020: Remote Writer’s Group

Most of my Zoom sessions for school feel like Monday morning nap time. Few students attend and some of those do are either looking away from their screens (probably at a smaller screen) or have eyes that say how much longer until this session ends? I feel like an entertainer, trying to keep everyone lively, spark conversation, and then go over material and assignments. It’s a slog, and it’s draining. 

One small success has been shared writing through Zoom. I decided to begin most of my classes with a quick write. I give a prompt, and we all write silently for 5 minutes. After we write, we whip around, either reading a golden line from what we wrote or summarizing our thoughts. I began to notice a bit more energy. Not everyone was on board, but I felt encouraged. 

This week I decided to start an optional remote writing group that would meet once each week. There would be no grades, no due dates; we would simply connect through writing and conversation. I was not expecting a large turnout; we ended up having about ten students attend and a few others who emailed and said they couldn’t make it this week but would like to attend in the future. We stayed on the call for almost an hour, and it was the first time I felt energy and joy anywhere close to what I feel in the classroom. 

We began with a silly quick write, shared our responses, and laughed. Next, we separated into breakout rooms and completed a group writing activity. We came back together and outlined our plans for a chain story, where (over the course of a week) students would each write a paragraph of a story and then email it to the next person in line. Finally, we talked about setting up a daily blog where we could record our thinking about what’s happening in the world. 

There was life in the writing, joy in the conversation, and most importantly, there was laughter. It was only the first week, and I do not know how it will go from here, but for today, my bucket is full.

April 28, 2020: Summer and Beyond

When the governor announced that schools would be closed for the remainder of the academic year, I thought, ok, I can handle two more months of remote learning. There is an end in sight, and then it will be summer. I felt badly for our 8th graders who have been with us since 5th grade and wouldn’t be able to receive a proper send-off from teachers and peers. But, considering the weight of the Pandemic, it all seemed reasonable.

Now I am fearing that we won’t really have a summer as we know it. We can expect humid and heavy July afternoons, raging thunderstorms, and yard work. But will I hear the splashing and squealing of kids in the pool? Loud birthday parties with a cacophony of pre-teen voices from across the street? I’m aching to plan our 4:00AM beach departure time—loading up our car and setting out when no one else is on the road. Dare I venture to imagine sinking my feet into the Delaware sand? Falling asleep with my mouth open under an umbrella, losing the page in my book as it drops face-first onto my sunburned feet? 

It’s entirely possible that all of this will have to wait another year. Summer 2020 may be an extension of spring 2020: homebound baking, reading, writing, and waiting. Connecting with friends and loved ones through Zoom (I am simultaneously thankful for and beginning to harbor a deep animosity toward this resource). And if this is the case, we will make it work. But, the one thing I cannot fathom right now is having to begin the 2020-2021 school year remotely. 

I realize this may be a reality, but having to meet new students online and attempting to build community in a virtual world is frightening. I know I should only worry about today and that I have little control over what will come; however, I cannot help but think about the longevity of loss that we may all may continue to experience. Family, friends, students, people I have not yet met but would have if we were mingling in the world: I miss you. 

April 27, 2020: Harry Potter Picnic Part I

Maddie and I have been planning to rewatch every Harry Potter movie for over a year. During holiday breaks, one of us will say, “Hey, let’s watch the first movie this weekend.” The other agrees but then she gets invited to a friend’s for a sleepover or one of us is just not in the mood, and it never happens. Surely, now, with all of this time on our hands, we could have gone through every movie twice, but until yesterday, we still hadn’t watched the first movie. Finally, after finishing my schoolwork around noon, I asked the question again, and we made it happen. 

We spread blankets on the floor, found a hundred pillows, and gathered six bowls of snacks. For the next three hours, we did nothing but watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We laughed at how young the actors looked (can you believe the film is almost twenty years old?). I only fell asleep for five minutes in the middle of the movie, and Maddie elbowed back to reality. I cannot remember the last time I watched a movie in the middle of the day; it was awesome. 

Typically, our TV is not on until the evening when Michelle and I settle in to watch a show. Our days are full of tasks. When we are not at work, we are exercising, cooking, baking, writing…….doing. Always doing. It’s tough for us to be still. But every once in awhile, it’s good to sit on the floor in the middle of the afternoon on a bed of blankets, eating crackers, popcorn, and raspberries, and watch a movie with someone you love. Or alone. Or with many people you love. 

I often talk about how I feel fulfilled on days when I create something, anything. But I don’t want to forget how good it can feel, on occasion, to do absolutely nothing during the heart of the day. 

April 24, 2020:  It’s Friday!  Does it Even Matter?

Today is Friday…..right? When I was working at school and living my life in 3D, every day had a different feel.

Sundays were laundry days with a mix of school work, relaxation, and a steady gearing up for the week ahead. Mondays were always heavy on email and usually led to tired evenings; no matter how long I teach, after a weekend, Mondays are a slap in the face to get it in gear— quickly. Tuesdays were the least impressionable day. Tuesdays were really just a day of the week, stuck between Monday and Wednesday. Of course, Wednesday was the balancing act. After getting through the workday, it was only two more days until the weekend. And Thursdays felt like the opposite of Sundays; instead of gearing up for the week, they were the slow, spiral sliding board, easing toward casual Friday. Work didn’t feel like work on Friday. Everyone seemed to breathe easier and talk about their backpacking trips, dinner dates, and sporting events. And Saturday was whatever we wanted it to be. 

None of this is to say that I didn’t like my job and was just waiting for the weekend to arrive. On the contrary; I loved the ebb and flow of the workweek. The variation and feel of each day made life exciting. Now, that has been temporarily lost. 

By the way, today is Friday (I just double checked). 

April 23, 2020: Draft Day has Arrived!

It’s like the super bowl at my house tonight. Nathan, our son who lives in the basement and who only emerges to eat or use the bathroom, is making himself seen and heard today. The NFL draft starts tonight at 8:30PM. I know this because Nathan said he’s been unable to sleep the last few nights due to the fact that he cannot contain his excitement. This is what happens to sports-starved athletes; the anticipation of seeing who the Philadelphia Eagles select in this year’s draft has become this month’s Super Bowl. The lack of live sports combined with his inability to actually play a sport with his friends and teammates is painful. Nathan will be tuned in from tonight through Saturday when this non-sporting event that is now the main event concludes. At which time he will inevitably return to the basement, where he will wait for the glorious day when he is given the green light to run onto a field and compete.

April 22, 2020: Two-Dimensional Teaching

This entry is part of a longer essay I’m working on…..

When I check in with my students through Zoom or email, talking about my failed attempts at completing a 1,000 piece puzzle at home, showing them the bread I baked that week, and discussing new books I’d read, it just isn’t the same as sharing these things in person. It’s as though we are actors, some distant and faded versions of ourselves projecting subdued voices into a fictional world. Online Zoom sessions feel like softer versions of the dystopian books we read together in school, futures where our relationships are threatened by unnecessary control, numbed by technological manipulation and authoritarian values. Our attempts to be uplifting are forced. We set virtual backgrounds to mask our stagnant living rooms, our unchanging lives. I try too hard to be funny, and my students force a smile, waiting for the sessions to end. There are moments when a sliver of truth seeps through the screen and sparks a connection, but these quickly dissolve in our two-dimensional worlds. And we are back to awkward silences or trivial yacking to fill the space and time. 

April 21, 2020:  Staying Connected while Reading Alone

I’m obsessed with trying to articulate why we love reading. There are the standard responses we often hear: to escape, learn new skills, understand varying perspectives, take in new information, and to distract us from reality. Though these are all true, I think there’s something ethereal about the process that’s fleeting and impossible to explain. 

Lately, I’ve been reading more slowly, sinking into charter-drive novels, giving myself time to reflect and not feeling as hurried.  Fiction is my preference, and I also love memoir, but I’m open to anything that feels authentic. Audiobooks are mainstays during my daily runs, walks, and weekend painting jobs. Recently, a colleague, aware of my deep respect for Brene Brown, suggested I listen to the “Unlocking Us” podcast. It’s fantastic and a perfect way to feel connected during this Pandemic. 

Brown interviews authors, speakers, and performers who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable and share what’s made them feel most alive and connected. Brown herself admits that, despite having produced one of the most-watched TED Talks and written several bestselling books, she was scared about producing this podcast. She emphasizes that anytime any of us does something for the first time, it’s frightening. Our instinct is to give up, make excuses about why this won’t work, and resort to old habits that make us feel safe. 

Her guests — all wildly successful in their own ways — share openly about their failures and fears. It’s refreshing to hear the honesty with which they speak, and rather than hearing about all their accomplishments, I find comfort in listening to them talk about how they’ve dealt with (and continue to deal with) feelings of inadequacy. 

So, the same connections I feel while reading fiction, I’m appreciating now while listening to her podcast. While we continue to be physically separated during quarantine, I’m thankful for Brene Brown and all of the other authors who find ways to keep us connected.

April 20, 2020: “Your Joy is Your Sorrow Unmasked”

My grandfather and I were close. He passed away not long after my first child was born. Shortly after his death, I would dream about him: how he thought every stitch in his side was an impending heart attack, how he ate apples before bed, and how he sighed when he forgot to put on his seatbelt and said, “damn….too late now.” I’d wake up thinking he was still alive. And then, as I rose from my bed, I remembered; I was living in a world without him. That world felt very different.

 Yesterday was beautiful. When I opened my door on Sunday morning, it sounded, felt, and smelled like a typical spring day. Neighbors in t-shirts trimming hedges, kids shrieking on a trampoline, last year’s mulch begging to be recovered. I mowed the lawn, and as I did, I forgot about the virus. It was maybe only twenty minutes, but everything appeared to be so normal. It didn’t make sense the virus had taken the lives of over 40,000 Americans in less than two months.  And in a little over three months, COVID-19 had stolen 165,000 lives worldwide. I felt guilty for being happy, enjoying the sunshine and embracing spring. 

I realize we need to carry on even though we are hunkered down. But I find myself grieving normalcy in a similar way that I grieved for my grandfather. Those moments when I forgot he was gone are similar to the moments now when I forget how many people have died and are dying.

I will never get my grandfather back, but I believe we will have a return to normalcy; I just don’t know how long it will be. Until then, I’ll be learning to simultaneously mourn and be thankful, to grieve and to smile. 

 

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

-Kahlil Gibran

April 17, 2020: Bartering with Bread

My wife looked at me this morning with weary eyes. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

She shrugged. “It’s Groundhog Day.”

I was sleepy, so I’ll admit to wondering whether it was really only February 2.  And then I got the movie reference. This day would be like yesterday, which was a lot like the one before. 

We have settled into a routine that leaves us looking forward to small moments. After I stare at my laptop for most of the day, I am excited to set out on a long walk while listening to my audiobook. Friday nights take us to the exhilarating drive through at Dairy Queen. But I’ll admit, no matter how many loaves I make, I’m always looking forward to baking bread. And I’ve found that I’m not alone; cooking and baking have become a form of meditation for many of us. 

Friends and acquaintances have reached out through text and social media: “Where are you finding flour? What’s a good sourdough recipe? Where can I buy yeast?” I’ve received many requests for bread recipes and questions about how to make a sourdough starter. Several have asked for me to drop off a small container of my starter so they could cultivate their own. Others have flat out asked, “Have any extra loaves for us?”

Because my freezer is full of bread, and because sharing food across the table from one another is not possible, I love delivering/trading/giving away loaves of sourdough, rye, multigrain, or whole wheat. It gets me out of the house. So far, I’ve traded for homemade masks, amazing chocolate drop cookies, and bags of flour. 

So, if you’re in the business of bartering, or if you just need to break bread with someone, hit me up.