About a year ago, Chris and I took up running for exercise. We haven’t entered any races, and if you’re my friend on any social media platform, this is the first you’re hearing of our new hobby because I don’t post regular updates of my distances or times. Running, for us, became a way to burn a few calories while spending some much-needed time outside -- beneficial to mental and physical health. Surprisingly, we began to enjoy it.
Pre-COVID 19, we ran most mornings after our boys got on the bus for school and before our work day kicked into gear. We live just a few blocks from Como Park, home to a lake, a zoo, and plenty of paths to run on.
Strangely, we found a community on our morning runs. We gave the other regulars nicknames -- “Young Grandpa Forest” for the hat-wearing man who reminded me of my late grandfather (albeit this grandpa usually carried an energy drink, something I couldn’t picture MY Grandpa Forest enjoying on a morning walk); “Older Dad” for the man who reminded us of my dad in another ten years -- gray beard and all; “Dog Grandpa” for the man who, you guessed it, walked with his sweet little Scottie dog. Not everyone was 70+ on our route, but many were. We exchanged pleasantries and smiles when our paths crossed, no matter the weather. We could always count on seeing our “friends” as I had taken to calling them.
One morning “Young Grandpa Forest” called out to us as we ran past. “Come to the orchid show at the conservatory this weekend!”
We didn’t make it to the orchid show, but the next Monday, we did stop to talk when he asked if we had made it. It turns out his name is George, not Forest. (I decided not to hold it against him.) He lived on our side of the lake. While I don’t think we shook hands, we definitely stood closer than six feet.
After that morning, we always greeted George by name. “Hi Chris and Kim!” he would shout with a smile as we met on our path.
And then the virus came, disrupting all of our plans and procedures, even our running.
While we have still been running, our route has changed. The path around the lake looks too populated most days to keep proper distance, and because we don’t want to run with masks if we don’t have to, we’ve opted for less populated routes. We also are running later in the day, usually during a lunch break. For these reasons, we no longer see our friends, and of course, if we did, we wouldn't feel comfortable standing and talking too close.
On a couple of occasions, we’ve seen Dog Grandpa and Older Dad from a distance, but for months now, we’ve missed George. Every time we’ve driven by the lake, my neck craned, searching for him.
I can’t explain why. Maybe it was a symbol of “normal times.” Maybe I was worried about him. After all, he’s in the more vulnerable age group. Maybe I missed that steady routine, that well-worn route where we could watch the ice creep over the lake and then months later recede, where I could run across the bridge near the pavilion without worrying about keeping distance if someone was coming the other direction, where I could gasp in delight at the crunch of leaves beneath my feet and laugh as our eyelashes accumulated snowflakes. Maybe seeing George nearly every day meant that my biggest parenting worry was remembering to sign the form for basketball and finding out what time practice ended that day. It meant that the virus lexicon of antibodies and social distancing and contact tracing was as unfamiliar as my newfound worries for my son’s social health as they miss friends and long-term academic concerns as I attempt to teach algebra and geometry.
Months passed and no George, until Saturday. On a whim, we decided to add an extra mile, looping back around an extra block before rounding the final stretch home. As we prepared to turn east from the lake, I saw him across the street, wearing his signature trilby hat. He was too far away for me to call out, but I nearly did. I suspect it was pure joy, not running endorphins, that plastered the smile on my face as we finished our last few blocks.
“We saw George!” I told our kids later. Even they knew I had been looking for him. They were surprisingly happy for me, perhaps recognizing this meant something more than just some strange man on the path around the lake. This isn’t my symbol that life is back to normal, far from it. But it is a reminder of a life we once knew, a life we will live again, someday.
And you can be sure my eyes are going to be scanning the path around the lake when we head out on our run again tomorrow, hoping to see some of our familiar friends.
As my semester winds down for the classes I would have been teaching on campus, I put together an anonymous survey to ask some specific questions about our transition to a virtual learning environment. The responses were....confusing.
As we moved to a virtual learning environment, what aspects of this class became more challenging?
Student A: Not getting personal feedback was a bit irritating because there is only so much information that can be conveyed digitally.
Student B: I think that not much became challenging because we were still able to get feedback from the professor and the students.
If virtual learning were to continue, what advice do you think professors need to have?
Student A: Maybe be more clear for due dates. It was hard for me right away
Student B: Also having a weekly agenda and due dates was very beneficial.
What other feedback would you like me to have at this time?
Student A: I loved how your ZOOM meetings weren't really focused on learning material or instruction as it was more like getting a coffee and sitting down and having a conversation.
Student B: Zoom should have been used a lot more for group activities and class session to teach in. Being able to be with the others students and have more teacher/student interaction would make it better to complete activities.
Because I know myself (Enneagram 2), I will spend the summer thinking about the negative responses and how I can make necessary changes in the fall if we continue in an online environment, but I also realize that like all teaching, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every student. Just as some students dread peer review while others find it incredibly helpful, some students will want regular required meetups and others will prefer to work through assignments on their own. I don't know the answers.
I don't like not knowing the answers, not being able to grasp what the future holds. This state of uncertainty is maddening, as are all of the conflicting reports I see of how distance learning is going in other houses around the world. I see Twitter threads about how teachers aren't doing enough followed by a thread on how teachers are asking too much of students. On Facebook I see conversations of parents who are ready for the school year to just be over already followed by comments of parents who are considering homeschooling indefinitely because their kids are thriving in the setting. I see it in my own house where one son wakes early and diligently completes all schoolwork for the day while his brother sleeps late and pushes off all schoolwork until the very last possible minute each week.
But I know teachers. Most (not all, I will admit, but most) will work tirelessly this summer, assessing and reassessing, learning new tools and reading about new strategies. I will be with them. I will grade finals this week and then spend some time in the garden before I roll up my sleeves and do the necessary work to be ready for a new semester -- whatever that semester might looks like.
Polio at five,
Months in a hospital bed
You’re a survivor
Head tilted over
The trashcan in the kitchen
You’re trimming my bangs
Giggles with Vicki
Racing your wine to the fridge
“Grandma D is here!”
Standing tall on the
Chair pulled next to the counter:
Where I learned to bake
The best medicine:
On the couch with soaps, saltines
You made me feel safe
Your perfume lingers
Lovely lipstick, mascara
It must be date night!
In the dressing room
Helping me try on mountains
Of clothes: Shopping trips
Angsty teen moments
Words I could never erase
You always forgave
Busy high school years
Contests all around the state
You didn’t miss one
Quilts cut, sewn with care
Favorite cakes, breads, apple pies
You love through action
Still in love with Dad
And now the perfect grandma
Teaching me always
“You look like your mom!”
I used to shrug my shoulders
Now I nod with pride
As we've watched the rapid spread of COVID-19 these past several weeks, I've grown increasingly concerned for some of my students -- the incarcerated individuals I teach through the Second Chance Pell program. For over a year and a half, I've guided small groups of students as they study writing and literature. Through online discussion forums and multiple essays, these men -- old and young -- have inspired me as they squeeze an opportunity for all it's worth. They read extra pages, ask probing questions, push for extra feedback. Their lightbulb moments are frequent and focused as they look towards their future outside of the walls of a prison. While the pay isn't great (is any adjunct work?), I would do this job for free. (Please don't tell my supervisor.)
Over the weekend, however, I received word that the current group of students would be the last for a while. These students have faced a myriad of complications over the past several months: reduced hours in the computer lab, lack of access when the facility goes on lockdown, loss of research privileges because someone else abused the opportunity. Still, they pushed through, using the time and tools they were given to cobble together an education, many of them taking classes for the first time in decades. They learned to manage an online learning platform and textbooks; they shared insights about Walt Whitman and Flannery O'Connor; they wrote profiles about their mothers and baby sisters and their own struggles with addiction. They overcame.
Of all of the obstacles they faced, however, this virus has proven to be their most formidable foe. As their institutions took necessary precautions, locking down anytime someone had a fever, my students lost access to our classes because they couldn't reach the computer labs. While I know that shutting classes down for now is the right thing, it didn't stop my tears as I graded their final reflections and essays today. These students are always humble and thankful, and this last group was no exception.
Here are a couple of favorite lines I read this week:
"Writing again has reawakened my thirst for knowledge and hunger for understanding, and I am famished."
"Thank you, Ms. Witt, for your help during this tough time for our country and world . . . You have little idea what it means to me that I can attend college."
"With what I learned in the 7 weeks of this composition class will stick with me forever and the time and effort I put in to this class has paved a way of good feelings and pride for actually stepping up and doing college classes."
"I’m positive that this course has helped me and others get what we needed to continue forward, and strive towards our goal of being a college graduate."
Read those words and think of those men, making choices to transform their lives and seize new opportunities. Then think of them in facilities where the virus is already spreading. If you'd like more information, here's a starting place:
NPR article about the spread of COVID-19 behind bars
The Daily podcast episode about one man's attempt to get released from Rikers Island as the virus spread
Ear Hustle podcast - start from the beginning and learn about life in San Quentin
The New Jim Crow - a necessary read about mass incarceration in our country
A wise friend recently told me that we don’t have good days contrasted with bad days. Every day has good and bad moments. I’m trying to reframe my thinking in that way.
Yesterday I sat cocooned in the backyard sun for hours, indulging in the comfort of divine prose. The laughter of my youngest son as he played driveway basketball with my husband interrupted the constant birdsong. That was a good moment.
For lunch I slathered butter on a thick chunk of homemade French bread. With dinner last night I indulged in summer in a glass: a gin and tonic with a fresh squeeze of lime. Those were good moments.
Today the sadness fogged around me as soon as I woke, unwelcome. Just out of my peripheral view, it’s there, a version of the truth of this new life. Eventually I escaped to the backyard to cry. That was a bad moment.
I lost my patience as I tried to help with Spanish homework, eventually slamming the fridge door shut in frustration. That was a bad moment.
Last night we tumbled onto the sectional for the new basketball documentary on ESPN. During commercial breaks we shared favorite scenes and munched on monster cookies. That was a good moment.
When I walked into the dining room this morning, I noticed my spindly tomato plants, growing from seeds, stretching towards the sun. That was a good moment.
As I scrolled through social media, I saw images of protests bookended by first-person accounts of medical professionals fighting the virus. Simultaneously I felt anger and fear and sadness. That was a bad moment.
Yesterday during online worship, I studied the faces of the worship band, singing one of my favorite songs. Tears sprung at the corners of my eyes, and I looked away. At once my heart ached to put my arms around my friends and also swelled with a deep love for Jesus and his followers. That was a bad/good moment.
Do you have any good or bad moments you care to share?
“How was your nap?” I ask as he walks to the kitchen where I’m preparing dinner.
“Good. Like every other nap,” he replies with a smile, rummaging through the cabinets and the refrigerator for a snack. I’m at the counter, chopping an onion. He hugs me from behind. If the weather allows (for him, that means above 55 and sunny), he will spend some time outside working on his basketball shot. Earlier in the day I could hear him straining through some situps and pushups in his room.
“Mom, will you take some pictures for me?” he asks later. He’s been customizing shoes, painting them as a tribute to Kobe. Like me, he loves the light at the end of the day. We walk outside where I take several shots of him from different angles so he can post them to social media. He’s hoping to start a business.
“I can’t wait until this is all over,” he tells me at least once a week. This boy lives for basketball, and while his school season was finished, he was just gearing up to play on his favorite team with official practice set to start in early April. That obviously didn’t happen. Then the rec center closed. Thank God for our driveway hoop.
“Stop it, bro,” I hear his laughing voice echo up the stairs as I work in the mornings. He’s in his bedroom below, on a video chat with a friend from school. They are supposedly collaborating on homework, but I don’t intervene if they steer off course because I’m so glad to hear the joy in his voice. They talk about shoes and NBA stars; when I’m not listening, I’m sure they talk about girls. I never thought I would be so thankful for technology.
While his brother is reluctant to talk about matters of the heart, this boy wants to talk about deep topics all the time, even when I’m exhausted after a day of teaching online, helping with homework, doing laundry, and preparing three meals. How do you know God is real? How do I know what my future holds? How can things like the Holocaust happen? Those are a few of the topics we've covered in the last few weeks. He loves with this deepness and intensity, too.
Sixteen is straddling a canyon, one foot in childhood, the other firmly in adulthood. Someday soon life will provide the push that gets him fully to the other side. Until then, I’m happy that he still calls me “Mama” and then raucously croons the next line from “Bohemian Rhapsody."
I'm always happy to sing along.
“Wake me at 7:59?” he asks each night as I head upstairs to bed. He’s perched in front of his PC, ready for some Fortnite or NBA2K before his bedtime. I kiss him on the cheek.
“I love you,” I say as I leave the room.
“I love me, too,” he laughs. And then after a pause, “No, really. I love you.” Sometimes he asks me to come back for a hug.
The next morning I peek in as he sleeps, noticing shadows of the 7-year-old I tucked into the bottom bunk eight years ago when we adopted him and his older brother, new parents with zero years of experience on our resumes. I also see a whisper of the man he will be in his broadening shoulders and shadowy facial hair. Fifteen is mythology, a centaur age -- half boy/half man.
After waking (at the requested 7:59), he stumbles out of bed to the yellow kitchen bench and starts on his online schoolwork while I make breakfast. Occasionally asking for help, he’s usually done with one of his four classes before school would have started (8:30) before the virus.
Eventually I head upstairs to my office where I check in with students and respond to some writing or, if I'm feeling brave, work on my own writing. He continues to work, coming up to ask for help with a journalism assignment or to snuggle with Rooney.
“I’m so popular,” he jokes, grabbing his phone from the charging station by my desk and scrolling through notifications.
He’s mostly self-motivated and independent, a self-proclaimed homebody who is happy that I can no longer invite random guests over for dinner on a weekly basis. Of course he’s a teenager who misses his friends, but armed with snacks, video games, and driveway basketball, he could live this “stay-at-home” life indefinitely.
“Rooney, you’re my favorite family member,” he declares, winking at me as he walks back downstairs.
Despite living in the same house, we have a lengthy text thread full of Brooklyn Nine Nine gifs and dog memes. Sometimes I watch him play a video game. If he’s in the mood, we take a neighborhood walk with Rooney or do an ab workout in the basement.
While I know we’re not supposed to name Enneagram types for others, I think he’s a 5, a curious thinker who is disinclined to talk about emotions. I’m a 2, an empathic helper, creating some conflicts for us.
His joking style is witty and sometimes barbed. It can cause me to double over with laughter in the kitchen as he teases Chris, but other times he will accuse me of being “sensitive” if I’m not in the mood. He’s not wrong.
It’s a dance we are learning to choreograph together as he recognizes when he’s stepping on my toes and I practice steps that aren’t always my preferred style. Most of the time, though, we're at least dancing to the same music.
Open a document.
Watch the cursor blink.
(What if there is someone on other end
sending Morse code in those blinks?
Does she need help? What can I do?)
I can write. I will help
by writing: gather some words.
Sentences can help, but any words
will do. Let her know
she's not alone.
Open a new tab. Time to check
the news. When this all first started,
every day felt like a new century
with enough news
to fill a World War. Now,
the stories bleed together,
trickles of facts, stats, mask patterns --
creating pools of
doctors' warnings, desperate parents,
death counts. Too much.
Return to the blank document.
Find solace in the emptiness.
But that blinking cursor still
calls for help.
The white space stares.
A gaping mouth.
A never-ending cave.
The bottom of the ocean.
An overflowing morgue.
Maybe that girl behind the Morse-code cursor
I order takeout from?
Will the store have flour
this afternoon? When will life
return to "normal"? Will my
parents stay healthy? Will my kids
But you don't have those answers.
Take a deep breath. She's still there, blinking,
waiting for your words. They
matter. So does she.
Bring her to life.
Begin to write.
I miss my extended family.
I don't miss wearing makeup.
I miss seeing my students on campus.
I don't miss my bleak underground shared office space.
I miss going out to restaurants.
I don't miss finding parking.
I miss walking around our lake.
I don't miss the weird guy who would sometimes yell at people.
I miss hugging friends at church.
I don't miss the awkward handshakes with strangers.
I miss watching my kids play basketball in weekend tournaments.
I don't miss the entrance fees.
I miss my kids having a school routine.
I don't miss the social drama that one experiences there.
Dear Wesley from the Lumineers,
This is a love letter of sorts, but I'm writing it with my husband's permission
On Friday, March 13, we were scheduled to see you play at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
My husband and I met at a concert over 17 years ago, so live music is kind of in our relationship's DNA. Your concert was on our bucket list of live music.
In anticipation of your show, we listened to your new album, iii, on repeat. In the kitchen, while we worked, in AirPods as we exercised. That music became the soundtrack to the end of our winter. At the time, we were dealing with a difficult parenting situation, and the tragic family story interwoven in that album became cathartic. We watched your videos on repeat, too.
Your music, sad as it was, gave us hope.
Eventually you postponed the show as COVID-19 spread. My feelings of uncertainty and fear of the pandemic overshadowed my sadness about your show, though. We would see you again.
The last few weeks, collectively, have been hard. I'm safe at home with my family, but I'm scared for the future. I'm grieving missed opportunities. Many days feel like Groundhog Day. I don't need to list all of my worries here; I'm sure you have your own.
Yesterday, though, you provided a gift. As I browsed through Facebook, I saw your face. And your guitar! You were doing a live show to raise money for restaurant workers. I called my husband upstairs, and we contributed some money, settling in as you played song after song, long past the scheduled 30 minutes.
Great music often makes me cry. Soon tears were flowing down my cheeks as you sang "Angela." Home at last....
You shared the story behind "Gun Song," and I thought of my own dad, sheltered in place with my mom on my childhood farm in Iowa. Things I knew when I was young...
"Ho Hey" took me back to kitchen dance parties with my adopted sons when they first joined our family eight years ago. I belong with you, you belong with me...
You even threw in a cover of Coldplay's "Green Eyes," a song that will forever remind me of the season of falling in love with my husband. You're the one that I wanted to find...
So thanks, Wesley. For the more than $25,000 you raised for restaurant workers and for giving us exactly what we needed yesterday afternoon. We hope to see you in the fall. Stay safe.