Shelter in place

It is primarily instinctive, but it has been clearly shown that birds that build intricate nests…learn and become better nest builders over time.

Look at what it is that makes a nest: Layers. Strands of this and snippets of that: hair, grass, needle, leaf. And, too: Tenacity, instinct, skill. How many wingbeats must it take? How many miles does a bird traverse back and forth, back and forth, to make its shelter, to attract and secure its mate?

It’s a delicate business, the weaving in of new material to create the nest cup. 

Think of what it is that makes a cup and what it’s for: Curves, walls, a space in which to keep things–water, keys, buttons, change. What is an egg’s shell but a cup full of change? And a nest but a cup full of shells?

It’s a bird eat bird world out there.

In the spring my children were babies, a stellar jay raided a sparrow’s nest in the tree outside my second-story bedroom window. You need three crows for a murder, but it took only one jay to kill the nestlings, high up in the branches, unmoved by the parents’ screeching that sounded, to my human ears, first like screaming, and then like keening.

It may seem obvious, but a well-placed nest box can mean the difference between nesting success and failure…

Consider what it is success requires: Think outside the box.

Late last fall, in a different kind of time, I found an abandoned nest hidden inside a thicket of tangled morning glory and climbing rose. I marveled at its intricacy and craftsmanship. I admired its cunning inner cup. It felt like a prize for my morning’s labor of taming wild plants.

In this spring of strife and threat and fear, when I find the nest again, forgotten on a table at the back of the greenhouse where I’d set it months ago, it sets in motion a train of different thoughts. I think of various shelters I’ve made and what I’ve learned (and haven’t) about how and where to build a nest. I think about what kind of bird I’d want to be and how I want to live. I could never be a predatory jay, raiding other birds’ nests, flying with a raucous flock. I no longer want a pretty home balanced up in the branches of a tree; the view, I know, is lovely, but the rent is high. I think, if it’s a choice, I’d be more finch than sparrow or jay. Like the ones who sheltered in my yard last year, I’d need no human-built box to hold my nest, but only a hollow within a tangle of stems and leaves and thorns, a low, dark, small space a bully jay would never bother.

There’s more than one way to be fit and survive.


Dots (and some thoughts about process):

This week I encountered the nest in the greenhouse soon after reading my friend Kari’s piece on nesting and anxiety. Both had me wanting to write in a literal way about my own home, the place in which I’m sheltering, but I never got beyond the metaphor. Instead I fell down a Google rabbit hole, reading about all kinds of birds and their nests (some linked above), and I spent time watching the ones I share my little corner of the world with, mostly finches and crows. I think this post came out more like poetry than prose because for weeks now I’ve been reading the words of poets on Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa. I don’t know Dave, not even in an internet sense–not really–but he thinks he found this blog through the blogroll of someone I know (though he doesn’t remember who), and he’s been linking to my posts. So I’ve been reading the other writers he links to (on Sundays), and their cadences, their ways with words, have likely been planting seeds in my head that are beginning to sprout (which is what happens when writers read). Our connection might (or might not) be Bethany Reid (I’ve seen they are Twitter connected), a poet I met decades ago at the University of Washington, a woman I sometimes think of when I see Roethke’s line about once knowing a woman “lovely in her bones” who sighs back at sighing birds, maybe because she once brought to our workshop a sestina I’ve never forgotten about a young girl chasing geese, and maybe because she’s lovely in the way that songbirds are, and maybe because that time and place and those I knew there are fused with Roethke in my mind. This week Bethany published a post about the poet Crysta Casey, a woman who was beautiful in a different way (more like a loon than a songbird) and whose flight path occasionally crossed our own on that campus, and that, too, seemed connected to metaphors about safety and home. (Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop in the 80s was a nurturing place for many fledgling poets.) Much creative work–nests, homes, poems, blog posts–are built this way, by gathering together bits of this and that from the things we encounter by chance and seek by choice, and then weaving them into something whole and new, and in this chaotic time, there’s something wonderfully comforting in the constancy and underlying pattern of a process that seems, on the surface, merely random.

Of real life and new normals

With the exception of 1988, I’ve lived every year since 1970 according to the rhythms of the school-year calendar.

Each summer when we go on break, I know how many weeks have passed for about three or four of them. The point at which I’d have to look at a calendar to know how many weeks it’s been is generally about the same time that the novelty of break has worn off, and “break” has become just how I live. Although the foundations of my life remain the same in the summer months, my school-year ways of being recede and feel very far away, and almost, in important ways, unreal. While my mind knows that they’ll return in September, it’s always a shock to my system when I go back, and for several weeks again I am quite aware of how many it’s been since my life abruptly changed.

That’s where I’ve been this week in our pandemic. I’ve lost track of how many weeks have passed since schools closed and we began self-isolating, and although the foundations of my pre-pandemic life are intact, many ways of being in that life feel far away and, in important ways, unreal. It’s now hard to imagine them coming back, even as I know many of them will.

Here I am, living in the same house, eating the same foods, loving the same people. I am working for the same employer, collaborating with the same colleagues. Monday I sighed upon waking, anticipating the work week facing me; Wednesday I planted fledgling seed starts in the early evening sun during the hour between work’s end and dinner’s beginning; Friday I pulled the summer furniture out of the shed and arranged it on the patio.

But also, here I am, rarely leaving that house, which has also become my workplace. Friday I ate a burrito from a taco truck, and that food that used to be convenient, commonplace sustenance tasted good in the way that only rare treats can, one I felt guilty about indulging because procuring it required leaving the house. Contact with most of my beloveds happens only through a screen.

A major project of the work week was gearing up for our library staff to create read-aloud videos for our students, something we’ve never done before. We’re working together on it via Google Meets and Google Docs. I am doing none of my usual spring tasks; I have not reconciled budgets because I cannot order books without purchase orders and there is no process right now to obtain them, and because there is no one to receive shipments and no way to be sure that in the fall students will be able to access any books we might purchase. A major project inside my head was thinking about what work I can do now that will be useful for whatever school is going to look like in the fall, knowing that we can’t know what it is going to look like.

The only thing that feels sure to me is a future that is different from the past. Not in every way–but also, in every way. If I think of my life as a set of systems–work, home, health, money, relationships–the foundations remain the same (at least for now), but each of them is also so changed that it feels as if there can be no true going back to what they once were. Can’t step into the same river twice and all that.

This is not, at this point, an original thought about the future. But it might be an important one for thinking about how to regard and live through the present.

Late last week, a friend referred to the time we’ve been living in isolation as “lost” and talked about a “return to real life.”

“No,” I said, pushing back. “This is real life. These days are our life, too. We haven’t lost them.”

In the past week I’ve felt myself resisting the idea that this is some time apart, some blip, some brief interruption to our regular programming, in part because the only thing that’s become clear to me in the past week is that our experience with this virus is going to be a long haul, and I don’t want to, in any sense, give away such a big chunk of time by thinking of it as unreal or somehow apart from the whole of my life.

But also, because the life I’m living now is beginning to feel normal.

As I sat down to begin this week’s post, I wondered: When do I stop labeling posts in my notebook with “coronavirusdiary”? When do my entries in this notebook stop being about living through the pandemic and become, instead–again–about just living? When does living through the pandemic end, anyway? When I return to my previous workplace? When restaurants and movies open? When we’ve all been tested for antibodies? When a vaccine is available? Can it ever end, now that we know one might come at any time? Will our previous ways of, say, shopping for groceries, disappear as surely as our previous ways of airline travel did after 9/11?

What is “normal life” or “real life,” anyway?

When I look back over my life, I can see that I’ve lived quite a few different ones. Meaning, I’ve lived through experiences that obliterated what had been my normal and created a new one. I’ve never done it on this scale, in the company of so many others, but at any time things can happen that rip the fabric of our days, leaving us to patch them together in new and different ways. At first, the time is marked by wild disorientation and disbelief, but none of us can sustain the heightened emotions that accompany those states, and as our feelings settle our minds come to accept that our new reality is, in fact, real. We might not like the new rhythms and conditions of our days, but they no longer feel unreal or like a time apart.

I think that’s where I am this week. Somewhere in the middle of some alternate version of my typical July, where I’ve lost track of the weeks, and September is so distant that how I’m living now is what feels real–no, what is real–and not like some bubble of other existence that I’m floating within. A July where blossoms are giving way to leaves, their clustered loveliness a stark contrast to the storm clouds so often hovering overhead, and where time is, indeed, passing–whether we want it to or not–and where September will come, in some form, as it always does, also whether we want it to or not.

Coronavirusdiary #5: Of dirt, weeds, digging, and optimism

A year ago, as part of my goal to eventually kill most of the lawn in my backyard, I removed a section of sod and tossed it in a back corner behind a tangle of rose bushes and what becomes a stand of ginormous lilies by late summer.

(The sod got thrown back by the fence.)

It felt like a slovenly thing to do, but no one could really see it much back there, and I didn’t know what else to do with it. I figured it might break down and turn into some good dirt. Somehow. (I don’t really know how such things work.) I focused on the more pleasing parts of the yard and figured I would deal with this problem later.

I hadn’t looked at it since last fall sometime, but a few weeks ago, I noticed that my piles of sod/dirt had undergone a bit of transformation:

This was not the kind of transformation I’d hoped for. Funny how much things can grow when you’re focused on other things, isn’t it? One day it’s just a pile of grassy dirt, and then it’s a pile of fast-growing weeds.

This part of the yard looked way too much like another section looked when I moved in two years ago:

While part of me kind of loved the wild weediness of this, it made the garden beds pretty unusable and it meant that nasty, spiky thistles were propagating into other parts of the yard. I didn’t want them to take over everything. It took me two summers to finally tame it, and I did not want to relive that experience.

So at the beginning of last week, on the heels of the previous hard one, I spent a sunny afternoon transforming that weedy sod dumping ground into what will become (I hope) a vegetable garden. It felt good to pull things up and whack at clumps of dirt with a metal rake. It felt good to get dirty and sweat. It felt good to look forward.

It’s not there yet. There are still quite a few large clods of rooty dirt, and it could use some compost mixed into it (I think). But it’s going to be a nice place for me to learn how to grow vegetables. It gets a lot of southern sun, and almost every time I’ve been back in that corner of the yard lately, I end up in a conversation with my neighbor Oshra (who you can see on the other side of the fence).

I wish I already knew how to grow vegetables. I wish I were more self-sufficient, in the most fundamental of ways. My great-grandparents were dairy farmers, and I have memories of visiting the farm and raiding my great-grandmother’s vegetable garden for carrots. But I don’t know how to grow food, not really. I grew up a suburban child of the 1970’s, and most of the food I ate came from a box. I can’t tell you when I realized that orange juice could be squeezed from an orange rather than a cardboard cylinder, but it was long after I should have.

“I don’t understand why this all feels so hard,” I said to a friend near the end of week 3, about my life in this pandemic. “In any day, the truly important things in my life aren’t significantly different, and nothing in it is that hard. In some ways, it’s easier.”

I hesitated to say the words I thought next: “In some ways, I like it better.”

Without a whole lot of further reflection, I realized that what’s hard is not (for many of us, but certainly not all) how we are actually living now. What’s hard (for me, anyway) has been seeing and understanding clearly, without any buffers, why we are living the way we are.

In some piece I read somewhere last week a writer posited that the United States we once knew and believed in does not exist any more; a new one is emerging and it is going to be a different one, one in which our old norms and systems will not prevail. Anyone who has been paying any attention since at least 2016 must know this is true, but I think it’s taken this pandemic–and our current government’s response to it–to tear down any walls of denial about the truth and impact of this shifting.

And that is scary. A president promoting quackery in the face of pandemic is scary. A makeshift hospital in Central Park and mass graves in New York are scary. A political party that openly states it will suppress votes because otherwise they couldn’t win is scary. A federal government seizing medical supplies but not saying why or where they are going is scary. An economic crash and a prolonged spread of disease in such conditions is scary. It feels like a kind of breaking down that will take years, maybe decades, to recover from, and recovery is not going to be a return to what was our normal.

I am hearing, from various corners and different voices, that perhaps that is just as it should be. Normal wasn’t working for many of us–even those with some privilege, like me–and we don’t necessarily want to go back. Not to the way things had become. But what I know about transformations and the emergence of new orders is that they are hard, and prolonged, and there are always people who are crushed by them. That is scary, too, and it is fear of what might come that has been the true source of difficulty for me.

While digging in the dirt, I thought about the stock market crash of 1929, and what it meant to those who were my age when that life-changing event happened. It was followed by the Depression, and then WWII. A person who was 55 in 1929 would have been 72 by 1946, the beginning of a return to life not being lived through prolonged, world-wide crisis.

I realized then that ever since the pandemic reached our continent, I’ve been living on hold, feeling as if these days are some time outside of my real life, a time apart. But the pandemic’s effects and what they have revealed about us aren’t going to to be over in a few weeks or even months. After decades of daily, relentless erosion to the institutions and systems that, in real ways, gave me a kind of security that allowed me to live without developing life skills and dispositions that might now become essential, here we are. We are in the thick of the weeds, and I can no longer ignore them and focus on the pretty parts of the yard. I need to learn how to survive–maybe even thrive?–while living within them. Because they have grown so, so tall, and it will take a long time to eradicate them.

If a person my age at the time of that earlier crash lived “on hold” until the crises ended and things felt like some good kind of normal, they would, in important ways, miss most of the last years of their life. And I don’t want to do that. Out in the garden, I resolved to stop living through my days as if they are, somehow, lesser days than any others I’ve had. I don’t know that it will be years until we feel as if we out from under this, but I do know I don’t have enough left to me to wait for some normal to start really living again.

I resolved, through week 4, to start saying out loud, “There are things about this that I like.” I resolved to find and revel in what I’m enjoying, which is not replacing the anger and fear in my days, but is living alongside it. Things like:

I like that I am waking and sleeping at hours that are more compatible with my body.

I like working from home and being in my home more.

I like spending more time with the person and dogs I get to spend this time with.

I like having more time and energy for things like laundry and yard work and house projects.

I like spending time on frivolous creative pursuits.

I like walking more and driving less, and seeing things I can’t through a windshield.

Last week I claimed to be an optimist, and I know that might seem at odds with resigning myself to a long haul of hard times. But I don’t think that optimism means having blind faith in good outcomes, or seeing only the bright side of every situation, or denying scary truths. A friend suggested to me this week that an optimist is a person who doesn’t believe in premature closure; in other words, an optimist is someone who, in the face of a challenge, remains open to new and different possibilities emerging from it. While they may see a place as dark and hard and wrong and broken, they don’t believe that’s the end of the story about that place.

I like that definition. It could be easy for me to look at when and how I grew up and the life I’ve lived thus far and conclude that I am probably not very well-equipped for where we are and where we might be heading. In light of that, I could curl up into a ball and wait for this all to pass, hoping any fallout doesn’t land too hard on me. Or I could continue to toss all manner of things into some out-of-the-way corner of my life and resolve not to look at it. Or I could sink into a hopeless pit and spend the time I have left looking backward to some good old days (the ones of my youth that were, in many ways, pretty good for me and many others).

But I don’t want to do any of those things. It has always been true that all we really have is the day we are in. I don’t feel like giving away any that I get. I’m alive right now. There’s no pause button, no stepping away. This is how we live now, and at the risk of being terribly corny and out of character, I’m going to end this entry by quoting from a TV show about football (of all things) that characterizes how I want to enter into week 5:

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

(Can’t get much more American than that.)


America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why.
“America’s economy has almost doubled in size over the last four decades, but broad measures of the nation’s economic health conceal the unequal distribution of gains. A small portion of the population has pocketed most of the new wealth, and the coronavirus pandemic is laying bare the consequences of the unequal distribution of prosperity.”

Social Distance: We Can’t Go Back to Normal
“We’re going to report on things as if they’re new, as if they are sudden manifestations of a nation in crisis. But really, all this is going to do is accelerate all the things that we have been spending on. It’s going to illustrate what we haven’t paid attention to. People like to say this disaster has opened our eyes. But having your eyes closed is a choice.”

Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting
“Well, the treadmill you’ve been on for decades just stopped. Bam! And that feeling you have right now is the same as if you’d been thrown off your Peloton bike and onto the ground: What in the holy fuck just happened? I hope you might consider this: What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause. It is, in a word, profound. Please don’t recoil from the bright light beaming through the window. I know it hurts your eyes. It hurts mine, too. But the curtain is wide open.”

The Nordic Theory of Everything
“Today the United States is at once a hypermodern society in its embrace of the contemporary free-market system, but an antiquarian society in leaving it to families and other community institutions to address the problems the system creates. Seen from a Nordic perspective, the United States is stuck in a conflict, but it’s not the conflict between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s not the old debate about bigger government versus smaller government. It’s the conflict between the past and the future….And whether the United States wants to admit this to itself or not, staying stuck in the past is putting itself at an ever-increasing disadvantage in the world.”

Coronavirus diary #4: the wrong kind of hard

Some years ago, when I was in the midst of making an important and difficult choice, my mother asked me the most useful question anyone has ever asked me:

“What kind of hard do you want?”

It cut right through any illusion I had that there was an option without pain. Her question gave me the gift of clarity: Knowing that no matter what I chose, it was going to be hard, I could see more clearly what my options truly were.

My third week of the pandemic contained all kinds of hard, and almost none of it felt like the right kind.

I am going to preface everything right up front with a disclaimer of sorts. If anyone is privileged in our shared disaster, it is me. I am getting paid. My nearest and dearest are safe and healthy. I have water, food, heat, internet, and toilet paper. I am not living through this in close proximity to addictions, abuse, or toxic people.

But this is all still hard. There are still losses, challenges, pain, and fear of future loss of all kinds for everyone, no matter how (relatively) good we’ve got it right now.

I think that would be OK if all the hard was the right kind. When I was home for two weeks, it wasn’t the wrong kind, which is probably why I felt mostly OK in it. While I felt some guilt when comparing my situation to that of healthcare or other essential workers, I knew I was doing the most important thing I (personally) could do, and I felt solidarity with others in it. It wasn’t hard to stay home, even when there were places I wanted to go, because lots of others were doing it and there was consensus on the necessity of doing it. For the first time in years now, I felt a fledgling sense of unity with my countrymen, and in the midst of the hard, that felt really good.

This week, all of the public school educators in my state went back to work remotely. On Monday morning, our schools had four directives: Feed our kids, be ready to provide childcare for essential workers, personally connect with our students and their families and provide supplemental learning opportunities, and pay our staff. This, too, felt like the right kind of hard for us to be taking on.

By Monday night, though, our state’s department of education issued a new directive: provide distance learning for all, to include awarding credits for high school students, and get it up and running in the next two weeks. Even our administrators didn’t know this was coming.

This is the wrong kind of hard, and by Friday afternoon I was full of something that I eventually identified as rage. It was hard to tell, because it was leaking out of me in the form of tears (and had been for days), but that’s what it was, all right. Rage.

I suppose it might have been some tipping point of the wrong kind of hard. This week has revealed so many kinds of hard that didn’t have to be, because of actions driven by corruption, ignorance, ineptitude, greed, and at least one giant, narcissistic ego. Instead of being united around actions to best serve all of us, we are fighting each other over necessary supplies and asinine displays of political loyalties, and as a result people are dying. This is the wrong kind of hard.

So, there is that, and it’s the foundation of my rage, for sure. But this week, as I and all the educators I know dove into our challenge in the midst of this strange, horrible time, it quickly became apparent that what we are being asked to do is the wrong kind of hard, too.

Despite my frequently dire tone here, I am an idealist and an eternal optimist. (It’s why I’m so often angry and railing.) “This is an opportunity,” I have said to anyone who might listen. “Here is our chance to do things differently, to see our mission differently, to really think about what matters in education.”

Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I mean, maybe. But not this week, and surely not next.

Instead of releasing much of the utter crap that permeates public education, it feels as if our state has doubled down on it (as have many states). We love to talk about equity and “trauma-informed practice” and “culturally-responsive teaching” until we’re blue in the face, but we are about to embark on delivering “education” in a time of tremendous trauma in ways that are likely to exacerbate it, especially for our most vulnerable students.

How do I know? Because of how it has already, before we’ve even begun delivering instruction, been traumatizing their teachers. In my interactions with colleagues this week I learned that they are worrying about our students dealing with cramped living situations (4 generations in one apartment), hunger, income loss (all adults out of work), adult-level responsibilities for siblings (a high-schooler caring for 6 younger children), abuse of all kinds, and being sex-trafficked (two different teachers shared this worry).

And in the midst of that, they are trying to re-imagine what teaching and learning might be, figure out how to learn all manner of new tools, take care of their own lives, and have some kind of integrity in a system that, in what passed for the best of times, routinely failed our students with disabilities, our students of color, and our students living in poverty.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or an educator to imagine how that’s likely to go. Could we just, for once, get real here?

Education is profoundly important, but two months without assignments and tests and grades in the midst of a traumatizing crisis is not going to be a thing that damages our kids forever. Increasing the trauma by adding to their families’ stress and creating inequitable opportunities (and consequences) might, though.

I wish we could acknowledge that: 1) We are living through a crisis that is taking a tremendous toll on every one of us and will have repercussions that will alter the course of many (all?) lives forever; and 2) many of our systems (including schools) were broken before this started; and 3) seeing the brokenness and the fragility of all kinds of things we rely on for stability is traumatic; and 4) given #1, #2, and #3, perhaps trying to patch things up and make them work kinda like they used to isn’t heroic or the thing to do right now. Perhaps, instead, the thing to do is take care of fundamental, human needs (food, shelter, safety, mental and physical health, connection) and pay attention to what that can show us about how we might all live better when the acute stage of this event is over. (As a good friend told me on Friday, we aren’t close to the end yet. We aren’t even close to the end of the beginning.)

Like I said, I’m an idealist and an optimist. (And I’m not being sarcastic.)

What I know about educators and most human beings is that we can and will dig deep for the right kinds of hard. When you see groups of regular people rising up and pushing back (which is already happening), it’s not because they are lazy or greedy or want more than their fair share. It’s because they care deeply about something and they have been pushed to their limits doing things that are the wrong kind of hard and that damage things they value. Like kids and their families.

This was a hard week.


We can’t go back to normal: How will coronavirus change the world?
“Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better…. But crises can also send societies down darker paths.”

Is Your Grocery Delivery Worth a Worker’s Life?
“Fearing retaliation, American workers are generally far more reluctant to stick their necks out and protest working conditions than are workers in other industrial countries. But with greater fear of the disease than of their bosses, workers have set off a burst of walkouts, sickouts and wildcat strikes.”

The Virus is a Reminder of Something Lost Long Ago
“Habits of mind and lifestyle do not change easily….Some powerful force must strike to awaken us from our slumber. Now we have been struck. We have a chance to notice…”

None of This is Normal
“Normal is gone. There will be a new normal. We’ll get there. We’ll get through this. But things will change and that’s going to be okay. Maybe better than okay. Maybe we’ll come out better in the end. But we don’t have to be better now, we don’t have to be better overnight.”

Philly Teacher: School district was right not to rush distance learning…
“In this moment, we shouldn’t ignore inequality, but demand that addressing it be central to any policy put forward. We need to stop thinking about education simply as a commodity that our students are losing. At their best, public schools can serve the community by transforming education into a social commitment to our future.”