A peek inside my COVID-19 life.

Every ten days or so, I bring home a reusable tote bag stuffed with microfiber cloths. These cloths have been sprayed with a disinfectant and then used to wipe down the mice and keyboards in the lab I share with Mr. Stueve.

We could just spray directly on the keyboards and mice—and we used to—but it leaves a sticky film that irritates the students, so we started cleaning this way, after every class that uses the computers, and haven’t heard many complaints since.

Though maybe they are keeping the complaints to themselves.

Our custodial staff is amazing, and they make sure that we never run out of the cleaners that we need (one for the tech and fabric chairs, a different one for the desks). We have a steady supply of gloves so that our hands don’t have to touch the cleaner. They fog our room every night. They are each performing Herculean sanitizing tasks, and I worry about the toll on their health.

But the smell of the cleaner—it does something to me.

When I put those cloths in my car, I can’t escape the smell, and that’s when I start to glimpse the toll teaching face-to-face in a pandemic has taken on me. I’ve heard that the sense of smell is tied most to memory, and the memories associated with this cleaner aren’t entirely pleasant.

I wash them—twice, to try and rid the stench—and then I use homemade vinegar and lavender oil dryer sheets to try and make a dent. When I fold them, I take a random cloth and see if anything has worked. The scent is more faint, but it’s still there.

On the bright side, it’s a good test for my own efforts to avoid getting COVID-19 (haven’t lost my sense of smell yet).

I’ve seen a lot in my social media feeds in recent weeks about mental health of students who’ve been remote learning now for nearly a year. Groups are clamoring for students to return to the classroom, citing mental health as a key reason.

The stories I’m currently missing, though: what about the mental health of students who returned to face-to-face instruction last August? What about the mental health of their teachers?

Mental health is a public health issue, pandemic notwithstanding. Sending kids and teachers back to school isn’t going to solve it. I’m sad that so many people seem to think it will.

Because I’m here to tell you—when I walk down the hallway to the lab after Mr. Stueve has cleaned it, and the scent of that cleaner permeates two layers of a cloth mask and a five-layer mask filter, my stomach churns. When I open the washing machine full of microfiber cloths and am overpowered with the cleaner odor, my heart starts to race. Those are physiological reactions that I usually associate with my fight or flight response.

I can’t wait to never smell this again, and I worry what will be triggered if I ever do.

If I’m thinking it…

I told a class this week that if they were thinking of a question or comment, chances are that at least two other people were thinking something similar, so they should speak up. In that same spirit, in case you have sneaky moments that untether you from any stronghold you’ve been able to anchor yourself to, here you go.

I figure if I was thinking it, at least one other person out there is too.


Comparison is the thief of joy, so goes the saying, and yet…

We are in a pandemic where I feel I need to give so much grace to my students and yet…

I want someone to pull me aside and tell me it’s all okay, that everything will be okay, and yet…

(Not that I would even listen to or believe them because the evidence feels overwhelming that nothing is okay.)

Sometimes you have to remind yourself to find the wins and remember that they are, in fact, wins.

Sometimes you have to wear metaphorical horse blinders, you just cannot look around at what others are doing, how you perceive others are succeeding while you feel you are failing, and instead ask yourself, “is today just incrementally better than yesterday?”

Sometimes you have to write the advice you’d give if someone came to you distraught, despondent, discouraged, and remind them–and yourself:

You’re doing the best you can.

Perception is rarely reality

The people who matter are on your side.

It’s all okay, everything will be okay.

Thinking: A Dangerous Habit.

I saw the tweet and it woke up the central cynic system of my brain: “Find three good things to look forward to this year.”

Don’t get me wrong–I am usually a fan of the Action for Happiness group. The work they do is important and helpful. I have their app and every afternoon my watch buzzes with a reminder to be gentler with myself, with others, to look for good instead of dwelling on the awful.

But the call to action on January 1, 2021 was too much. And yet, I stewed over it all morning.

“Three good things,” I muttered to myself. “I’m not a fortune teller. I have no trips planned. I have no life planned. And so little changes in my life from year to year anyway. Look forward to…what the hell.”

Last year? I had tons to look forward to. Trips, musicals, dinners, time with friends all over the country. It still hurts to think about the lost trips sometimes–there was about a 70% chance I was going to ride along in an RV with my sister and niece from Alaska to the lower 48. I actually mustered up the radical self-care to use two personal days and planned a trip to New York to see friends and museums. Two months into 2020, another friend snagged tickets for “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center, and I started planning a summer DC/New York trip.

Three things I looked forward to in 2020. Three things that never happened.

So I hope it’s understandable that my initial reaction to AFH’s initial 2021 task sent me into a bit of cynical rage. Why look forward to things that probably won’t even happen? Isn’t that a recipe for disappointment and depression? But the longer I stewed, something changed.

(As Stueve says, thinking is a dangerous habit.)

What if the three things I look forward to in 2021 aren’t exactly…things? Or events? What if the things to look forward to are more ethereal, more abstract?

Can I look forward to a deeper practice of grace–not only toward other people, but also toward myself?

Can I look forward to a continued minimizing and organizing of my life–possessions, apps–toward a maximizing of spending my time and resources purposefully?

Can I look forward to my to-read pile of books, my to-see list of films, my to-listen-to Friday Morning Soundtracks?

For many, January 1, 2021 is fraught for a variety of reasons. The panic from facing a blank slate of the coming year. The collective trauma from what we, humanity, have witnessed the past year. The pressure to change and mold ourselves into someone that–let’s be real–might only serve the people profiting off what we purchase to make those changes.

If you are feeling any of that, I understand and am holding space for you to feel and process as you need. And if and when you are ready to consider finding even one thing to look forward to this year, maybe move from the concrete to the abstract and see if that helps.

It’s worth a try. You are worth the try.

Happy New Year.

Christmas Eve 2020

When my dad moved us to Montana, I was sad to leave behind my Bellevue friends for the second time, but also looked forward to a world where no one knew that I played the piano. When it came time to register for classes, I auditioned for the top choir and made it. That choir yielded some of my fondest high school memories and dearest friends, and also introduced me to innumerable choral works.

The choir had a tradition at every December concert of singing the Austrian carol, “Still, Still, Still.” Always the final song of the concert, Miss Mac would turn to the audience and invite any alumni to the stage to join the choir and sing. Every Christmas since, when I hear that song, I am back on the stage in Williamson Hall, clasping the hand of the singer next to me before singing.

This year, the only singing I’ve done is in my car or my kitchen or even my classroom before kids or Stueve arrived; no communal carol singing of any sort. So I spent time this month learning a piano solo arrangement of “Still, Still, Still” mashed up with “Silent Night.” Initially, I thought I would record it and send it to my lifelong friend Mike–we met in that choir, by the way– as some sort of lame attempt at a long-distance Christmas gift. But then I thought about so many people I know (and I’m sure plenty more I don’t) who are low this season, who are missing concerts and caroling, who find music as a space for faith and comfort.

Sharing with just Mike is safe–he won’t point out the missed notes or uneven pedaling or changing tempos, because he’s my friend, but also because he shares my sentimentality for the song. I know it’s not a perfect recording, but I hope as you listen, you think of the people who made past Christmases special, and if you haven’t yet reached out to them, do so.

Merry Christmas.

Silent Night/Still, Still, Still composed by Sally DeFord, played by Julie L. Rowse

Looking forward to it.

It’s officially Winter Break for me as of 4 p.m. today, and this is an unusual Winter Break, as I’m sure it is for others. Winter Break in the past tended to fill up quickly with lunches and dinners with family, friends, and former students. There were typically no fewer than seven movies I’d go see in theaters. And of course, Christmas Eve services and Christmas Day celebrations were a highlight.

None of that is happening this year. And maybe it’s not happening for you, either. So at the risk of sounding preachy, I wanted to offer unsolicited advice about how to manage extended breaks mostly alone. Because even though my Winter Breaks could be busy, I’m a natural homebody and actually spend quite a bit of my breaks from school alone.

I was thinking today about how to best manage the next 18 days (!) of break, and it really boils down to two things: planning, and giving myself things to look forward to.

I started with that tonight–I’d found a recipe for Zuppa Toscano a couple of weeks ago that’s been haunting my dreams. So I decided earlier this week that after musical call backs ended and my break officially started, I would gather the ingredients and make a batch (and boy does it make A BATCH). I looked forward to this all week, and I really think it helped me manage my mood and my stress.

It has kale and garbanzo beans in it, therefore it is healthy.

After I ate a bowl of the Zuppa Toscano (with a side of Italian crusty bread), I started making a list of what I could look forward to, what I could plan, what I could structure my days around.

I have movies to watch and books to read (or listen to) and projects to work on and goodies to bake and basketball games to watch and new recipes to try. But the lists alone are not enough–the trick is to actually plan when to do these things, to capture that element of looking forward to something.

For example, I am already looking forward to Christmas morning, when I can watch Wonder Woman 84. Tomorrow and Sunday, I’ll plan out how to spend my days, making sure I have a good balance of rest, productivity, and entertainment. I’m sure there will be Zoom calls or FaceTime with people who matter, and those will be mostly spontaneous fun.

But don’t underestimate the fun that can be planned. Like in 30 minutes, I’m going to get ready for bed and watch Parks and Rec until I fall asleep. And then I’ll sleep tomorrow until I wake up, no alarm.

I’m looking forward to it.