COVID-19, Student writing, teaching

Pandemic Souvenirs

The last thing I ever need is more mugs. 

Well, maybe the truly last thing I need is more canvas tote bags – but mugs may come in a close second. I do have a lot of books also, but . . . I will always need more books, let’s be real. A mug is such a frequent prize or souvenir, a popular, inexpensive and easily brand-able giveaway in a goodie-bag. In spite of the fact that our cabinet is overfull of mugs (in further spite of my having done a couple of significant mug-purges in my mug-owning life), I still welcome mugs into my world. I don’t actively seek them out, though. I may pick one up from time to time, from the display shelf of the artist co-op, but I have trained myself to put them back again and walk away. I don’t buy mugs anymore. My partner doesn’t buy mugs anymore. They find their way to me, to us. Over this past pandemic year, three new mugs joined the exclusive collection in our kitchen cabinet. 

A brown coffee mug with a logo for Surly Brewing Company
Image by Liz Ahl

This first mug arrived in August 2020, with no indication as to who’d sent it. No note. Right from the brewery, which is in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was someone who knows that our home is called “Surly Acres.” Surly Brewing had to close their Beer Hall at the end of October, due to revenues being down 82% (compared with the same period the previous year) since the pandemic’s start. 

There was some speculation that they closed the Hall as a union busting move in response to their employees announcing an effort to unionize. The vote to unionize failed in early October, by one vote. The company is still brewing and selling beer, and the Beer Hall is still closed. I’m not sure what the status of the unionizing effort is at present. A more recent vote to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama also failed. I have served as a member of our university’s Faculty Union negotiating team this year – and it has been pretty strange and sometimes not so great trying to renegotiate a fair and transparent contract over Zoom during a pandemic, on top of the ongoing dismantlement and defunding of higher education, on top of everything else. 

The very notion of “working conditions” (“learning conditions!” “living conditions!”) has taken on new textures and urgencies — for our faculty, staff and students, as well as residents of the small New England town where our university has existed for 150 years. Since March 2020, the “work” many of us are doing — to learn, to live — has shifted profoundly, to varying ends. Much has been written by people smarter than I about all that has been revealed by both the pandemic and by responses to the pandemic.  And of course the financial “conditions” within which public higher education, especially in New Hampshire, has struggled to survive, already desperate in pre-COVID years, were further revealed, amplified, and, by some, leveraged as reasons to, oddly, cut even more deeply, as the pandemic’s conditions were added to the mix. 

***

When I received that Surly Brewing mug, I reached out on Facebook to see if I could get the secret gifter to identify themselves, but nobody ever claimed credit – so I still don’t know who sent it. It’s a good, solid mug. Decent size. You could see drinking beer from it, as it’s got a mild “tankard” vibe, though so far I’ve only had coffee. 

A white coffee mug with an orange handle, with the all caps text "YOU'RE ON MUTE" and a red microphone icon with a slash through it
Image by Liz Ahl

The second mug, sporting the text “YOU’RE ON MUTE,” arrived right around Christmas – again, anonymously. Again, I posted a photo on Facebook, with the caption, “I feel seen. (But not heard.)” Under the caption, I wrote, “THANK YOU to whoever sent this to me, possibly someone with whom I spent a lot of time in Zoom these last months, someone who has witnessed and can attest to my ongoing struggle with the un/mute function.” 

Teaching remotely for the first time over the last year, not by choice, to students who are learning remotely, some for the first time, some not by choice, has troubled assumptions or habits of my own teaching in productive, fascinating, frustrating, helpful and sometimes paralyzing ways. It has stirred up old insecurities and nurtured new ones. Some of what is being troubled by teaching online was already shifting in my third decade of teaching. Much of what is being troubled has needed troubling. 

I have been thinking about the myth (it feels like a myth) of “synchronicity” embedded in ubiquitous questions about “asynchronous versus synchronous online courses.” I have, perhaps more importantly, been reflecting on how that myth or set of assumptions has infused so much of my teaching in the physical classroom. I have been thinking about (a)synchronicity with respect to important (to me) pedagogical notions such as accident and improvisation and surprise and planning and emergence. I have also been wading a little further, if still gracelessly, into “ungrading.” 

The use of Zoom as the main way of connecting with students, advisees, colleagues, and friends, is exhausting. Zoom takes energy from me that it does not give back the way I have found that being in a live classroom gives back. The “option” (is it really an option if the conditions of the pandemic forced the choice?) to learn from a distance has been a real boon to some of my students, or so they tell me, and a real burden for others and, I think, a mixed bag for many. I’m guessing the same is true for some of my colleagues, but am curious to know more.

One Zoom boon for me has been a new degree of access to talks, seminars, workshops, and especially readings and Q&A’s with poets I’d not otherwise be able to hear “live” because of geographic distance. For readings I haven’t been able to attend, there are often (not always) recordings I can view later. I do occasionally feel strange guilt (?) for not taking even more advantage of the bounty that is available via Zoom, especially with regard to poetry readings — but I am spending so much time on the screen, I feel like I need extra or different “rest.” The bounty can be exhausting. 

An old, dear friend (also a colleague) did confess to having sent me this mug. It was a much needed and appreciated gesture and moment of levity. I haven’t used this mug as much as the Surly one. I should bring it into the rotation.

***

In the mid-Fall of 2020, I stopped making the trip onto campus to be Covid-tested – because – why bother? I was teaching remotely. True, it meant I wasn’t allowed on campus or in campus buildings at all, but I started to feel, as winter crept in, that it might actually be more risky to go in to get tested than to stay home and not be tested. For the most part, I wasn’t going anywhere besides the Rite-Aid drive through and the Local Foods Plymouth curbside pickup. The only time I entered another building besides our house was to go to my regular required blood tests at the health clinic, and a few times to the post office. Both of those experiences masked and very brief, in the five to ten minute zone. The thought of going to stand in line for a possibly longer time than that, and among a possibly bigger number of folks, many of whom were spending time in residence halls and classrooms together, just didn’t make sense. Also, I think it was making me increasingly sad and anxious to go onto the quiet pandemic campus, the masked and socially distant campus, the once-familiar-now-strange campus where I was only a visitor. Of course it was also making me sad and anxious not to go onto campus. It has been a sad and anxious time. Maybe mugs — with their attendant connotations of cozy warm beverages, steam rising, or maybe a mug of soup — symbolize for me a kind of comfort or deep, common familiarity.

At the end of February, 2021, a box arrived in the mail from a friend and colleague, Amanda. I opened up the box to find a blue #PanthersUnited wristband – which was how they were tracking which students had gotten a particular week’s Covid test on my college campus; a set of “honey spoons” (solid honey on the end of a stick so you can stir it into your tea); and a “First Fire” mug. And a very kind and loving note, so needed. I wrote at the time, “I have not once ever been so moved by the gift of a mug.” 

A photograph of a white coffee mug for "First Fire 2020 Plymouth State University," a package of clover honey "spoons", a blue "Panthers United" wristband, and an envelope with the word "Hi" written on it
Image by Liz Ahl

Amanda, who was being COVID-tested on campus, knew I would be especially happy to get one of the 2020 First Fire mugs they were handing out that day. On our campus, “First Fire” is a recent tradition, but already a well-loved one, during which the first fire of the fall is lit in the fireplace in our student union building. Folks come and enjoy donuts and coffee or hot cider in that year’s commemorative mug. And, most years, I write and recite a poem for the occasion. The poem is, I’m afraid, what you have to endure to get your free mug and donut. I try to keep it short.

A woman with long brown hair and glasses, wearing a purple shirt, speaks at a podium displaying four coffee mugs
Me reading a poem at the 2015 Plymouth State University “First Fire”

There was an attempt to hold a kind of socially distanced pandemic version of First Fire for this past fall, but it never quite came together. But they’d ordered the mugs already. Maybe far in advance? Ordering the mugs seems like an optimistic move. I did not start drafting a poem ahead of time for the occasion; I pretty much didn’t write a poem from May until December. Had I been pressed, I’m afraid I couldn’t have summoned the lightness or cheer such an occasion seems, reasonably, to ask for. But I was not pressed.

I haven’t had a drink from the 2020 First Fire mug yet. I need to remedy that. I’m more of a coffee drinker, but I should have at least one cup of tea in this mug, so I can swirl the honey stick in it, for the full effect. 

***

I have collected, not entirely intentionally, a number of souvenirs from this year, though to call some of them souvenirs feels a little strange. But also right. A small collection of cotton masks made by a local acquaintance, from different fun fabrics. The playlists of recorded Zoom poetry readings, many of which I’ve attended “live” through the screen. A year’s worth of the town’s weekly newspaper. A good deal of student writing about their pandemic experiences. The stash of letters and postcards I’ve accumulated since last summer, when I posted online that if anybody wanted me to write to them, they should message me their mailing address. I wrote and am still writing a lot of letters and postcards – and so many folks wrote (and still write!) back. 

With my students in Composition and Advanced Composition this semester, I did some brief in-class writing, discussion, peer feedback and assignment-prompting around totems, artifacts, and other significant objects. This was inspired in large part by the commemorative exhibition at my university, marking its 150th birthday with 150 objects. When I was thinking about how to spark conversation about how common, familiar objects might be made strange and powerful because of our own experiences and imaginations, I wanted to bring my own examples as a way of sharing a little bit of myself across the physical (and other) distances between me and my students. 

With my Composition students, I shared a twist-tie — you know, the kind that holds the plastic bag of a loaf of bread closed. By shared, I mean, I dug it out of the travel toiletries kit  where it has lived for years, biding its time. By shared, I mean, I held it up to the Zoom camera and told them how when we scattered my dad’s ashes into the Hood Canal five years ago, they were in a plastic bag, tied with this twist-tie, which, when I opened the bag, I stashed thoughtlessly in my pocket. Later, at home, getting ready for bed I guess, I rediscovered the twist-tie, and it was as if I was pulling from my pocket a different object than I had tucked in there hours before. Before scattering dad’s ashes with my mom and brother. Before coming home again to the house without him. Instead of tossing the twist-tie in the trash, I tucked it into my toiletries kit.  

In Advanced Composition, for one class session, I asked us all to check out the online “150 objects” exhibition and to bring to class at least one object of our own that held special personal significance. An object with a story, one we’d be comfortable sharing. I set up a Google document called “Museum of YOU” and invited students to share photos of their object(s) there. The Surly Brewing mug at the start of this essay was one of three objects I brought to our collective museum that day. I have since shared this essay (in earlier draft form, and now in this later draft) with my students. The insightful feedback I got from my Advanced Composition students in particular has really helped me continue to develop this draft, though it also still feels unfinished. As I type this, slogging towards the end of April, the semester is unfinished, the pandemic is unfinished, the essay is unfinished.

***

Many folks will have souvenirs from this time — and not just physical objects. Some of the souvenirs may feel like wounds, may be wounds. Some will carry and endure for the rest of their lives the deeply embodied and long-term physical and emotional consequences of “surviving” COVID-19. So many have died. So many have lost loved ones. Can an absence be a souvenir? Can a wound? I worry that it’s not the right word. Souvenirs not to “have” like one “has” snow globes or commemorative coins. Souvenirs not sought out but received nonetheless. There are probably souvenirs of my experience of this time that I will hardly, if ever, be able or willing to fully comprehend or claim as such. There are unfinished essays, unfinishable essays, essays unwritten. 

In terms of the physical objects that are named and kept as mementoes, there must be such variety out there. What are your souvenirs? What will you carry, willingly or otherwise, from this time? It is maybe too soon, maybe even too cruel, to ask. But I think there will be the obvious ones, the masks and hospital bracelets, but also the more personal and idiosyncratic and totemic ones – the pandemic souvenir that’s only decipherable as such to one person, but which, to the rest of us, is just a book of poems, or a single knitted sock, or a particular song, or a houseplant, or a twist-tie, or a sturdy coffee mug, one among many, waiting its turn in the cabinet above the coffee pot.

NOTE: I had thought I was going to write more, or revise further, or, I don’t know, have some kind of deeper insight or epiphany, before sharing this more broadly. But yesterday I came upon the photo of me reading at the 2015 First Fire, which reminded me that I had drafted this essay with my students, and that I had wanted to return to it/share it. I added that photo to the essay and changed two words, but otherwise, this draft is as it was in April. It still feels unfinished, but something about the photo made me want to share this essay here. So. Here.

About Writing, COVID-19, Poetry, rumination

The Next Step

I make myself go outside. It is nice outside, not too hot, but sunny and robin’s egg blue sky. A light breeze to keep the bugs off. To have to “make” myself go out into such temperate loveliness is so absurd. I am glassy-eyed and dimwitted from hours, days, weeks of screen work punctuated by the social media work-distractions which also serve as my sole contact with most of my people these days, and it is a nice day and I have a book of poems to finish reading and it is August and I am sad and frustrated and the fall semester of teaching writing (online) is looming, and winter is coming and so out I go.

There’s some windfall from the remnants of tropical storm Isaias. Acorn-studded bouquets thrown down from the skyscraper oak. Last year’s paper wasp nest gust-scrubbed from the skylight frame.

(I have not been writing poems. These words about the nest and the oak have the vague feel of poetry, but don’t pull me into drafting a poem the way they might have in March. That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else. Some place I don’t want to tread.)

All those empty chambers

I sit down to read but want to scoot the potted celery over so I can set down my notebook on the picnic table. As I shove the pot over, I reveal a toad. He is not amused. He was not expecting this turn of events.

img_7088-1
The toad scoots back underneath the pot, where it’s cool and safe, for now.

I think about the metaphors I want to make from the toad. The contemplative distance between my wanting to and my doing it is nearly nonexistent. First I consider the sudden exposure, the moments of disorientation and maybe fear, and then the finding again of that cool, dark space. I think about all the time I have spent inside over the last months. Then I’m thinking about how the few times I go out now, masked and skittish, I feel exposed and worried and strange. E(strange)d. And I am lucky enough to have a long-term partner at home, someone with whom to talk and cry and laugh and eat and be. And maybe I should just let a toad be a toad. I do not have a good history of letting toads be toads, however:

Toad
from my chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (2008, Slapering Hol Press)

I wrote that poem almost 15 years ago. Maybe longer? I was still teaching Introduction to Literature, which I think I only did my first few semesters on the faculty at my university, where I will start my 20th year in a couple of weeks.

It’s (e)strange to read this poem now, to revisit its long-ago March (or April?), and to think back to this year’s pandemic shut-down right after spring break. Hubris. Being on the lookout. Toad as soothsayer. Spring full of flood, earthquake, astronomical rarities, weather extremes, and my own casual imaginings about what “plague” might descend next. 

*

Later, after reading some poems and pausing to stare at the sky and reading some more poems,  I notice a caterpillar, on the picnic table, making its way somewhere. When I first see it, it is caterpillar-ing confidently forward, like it knows where it’s headed. But when it hits the edge of the picnic table, it seems fully unprepared for the sheer drop, the next steps suddenly gone, suddenly air. It reaches and reaches into the void where the path should be.

If I can’t let a toad be a toad, I also definitely can’t let a caterpillar be a caterpillar. I mean, they transform (!) into moths and butterflies (!!) for crying out loud. They can’t let themselves be caterpillars. They spin cocoons of self-generated silk around their bodies and mutate into a new form, often one dramatically different from their caterpillar embodiment in terms of color and texture.

Out on an errand last week, I wore a face mask as usual, but also happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m pretty sure someone who has known me for 15+ years did not recognize me — they are a brassy, call-to-you-across-the-crowded-restaurant extroverted person who always notices/sees me, says hello/engages in chat when we run into each other. They were oddly standoffish, and it wasn’t until I was back in the car that it occurred to me that maybe this person had not actually known it was me. Had not recognized me.

This didn’t make me mad or upset — instead, it reminded me of when I was new to the area all those years ago, how nobody knew me from Adam, and also about how much I enjoyed, for the first two thirds of my life, the opportunity, given and given again, of being a stranger, being unknown, being anonymous. Being new, and maybe transformed by that newness.

Was I enjoying the notion of (possible) rare anonymity in pretty much the same instant I was mourning spending 95% of my time physically — and emotionally — apart from the world beyond our front door? Was I remembering a more itinerant life, when I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few years? When I was somewhat regularly renewed by…..being new? By being the stranger?

Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 9.44.32 PM
From Etymology Online

What is my current relationship to estrangement, anyhow?

*

I make myself look at the sky. Then I take a photo of the sky. I am documenting and archiving, which feels like a thing I can do to disrupt the strange stillness of just looking at the unmediated sky. Or observing, without recording, a caterpillar.

I have never succeeded at meditation, as far as I know. (I have also perhaps not tried very hard.)

sky

How long was I outside before I was putting all of it to metaphorical purposes? Did I bring the purposes with me out onto the deck, with my book and notebook and iPad, or were they only revealed to me (like a toad!) after I got out here?

I wonder if there can even be an unmediated sky or caterpillar if I am there looking at it, camera or no. Aren’t I just a camera? I’m not even sure I want to let the caterpillar just be a caterpillar, or a toad a toad, or if that’s even an option, given language, given my hungry, narrating gaze.

*

Two ways I think about ending this writing. First way — another video, with my foolish narrating voice calling a melodramatic play-by-play for an inchworm who, in “the end” (of my documenting/narrative framing) succeeds, survives, makes it across the gap, doesn’t get eaten by the toad, etc., etc.:

Second way — I consider how the caterpillar and the inchworm, in their reaching with the whole front ends of their bodies into the empty air, across the gap, remind me of the first card of the major arcana of the standard Tarot deck: The Fool.

On the left, the Rider-Waite (classic, popular tarot deck) rendition of the Fool; in the center, a more contemporary riff on the traditional Fool iconography in the “Light Seers” tarot deck, and on the right, the Fool from my own tarot deck, the Hanson Roberts. The significant common image: the cliff the Fool’s about to step (or fall) off of.

At Tarot.com (the Hanson-Roberts link above), this is part of their description of the Fool:

“Modern decks usually borrow from the Rider-Waite imagery. Most Fool cards copy the bucolic mountainside scene, the butterfly, and the potential misplaced step that will send The Fool tumbling into the unknown. Don’t forget, though, that the earlier versions of this card represented already-fallen humanity, over-identified with the material plane of existence, and beginning a pilgrimage toward self-knowledge and, eventually, wisdom.”

The gap. The fumble and reach. The unknown. Fools of all stripes, neither fully innocent nor irredeemably fallen, poised to take that tumble or leap or step.

That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else.

COVID-19, Poetry, Uncategorized

Ice Out

                  Lake Winnipesaukee, NH, April 2020

They declared “ice out” this morning,
made it official, having observed from the air
mostly clear waters; yesterday’s
waning bergs in Meredith Bay
and Center Harbor broken up overnight
and swallowed back into the dark fathoms.

So now, the M/S Mount Washington
can navigate the massive lake
to all five of her ports –
but pandemic has promised
she’ll stay moored at shore,
her decks and cabin remain
empty, their former life gone
not like the gradual departure
of winter ice, but suddenly –
an abduction, a shock, a rupture –
like when the earliest ice beckons
but is actually still so thin
you could break right through
and into the frigid lake – fall
victim to the shock of exposure –
you and your optimistic bob house,
maybe even your reckless snowmobile.

*

At deepest winter’s turn into this year,
we waited for the other call—ice thick
and sewn up solid enough on Squam
that the harvest could safely commence –
the cutting and hauling and packing
into sawdust of massive frozen slabs,
ice cakes stowed away through spring
to cool the storied lakeside camp’s
July iceboxes. It came in late January
in the nick of time, ice in,
and the saws and pike poles and winches
did their usual work over two days
of frigid glimmer.

*

In March, while ice still held the big lake
in winter’s loosening fist,
our small town campus’ hockey arena
was thawed and drained, swept and scrubbed,
and cots, oxygen, privacy screens, bedding,
brought in to set up for overflow
from the modest 25-bed hospital,
to prepare for the surge, which I visualize
as a flood, remembering how this very arena
has been flooded by the surging, sudden sprawl
of spring’s unbound river, loosed
in the abrupt letting-go of an upstream ice dam.

*

Oh, April. Cruel. Just as the green started
to reveal itself, another wet dump of snow.
We hunker down, and when we creep out
for essentials – toilet paper, food, medicine,
breeze and sunlight – we try to smile
through hand-sewn masks.

The harvested ice waits, stacked
to the rafters of the dark ice houses,
quarantined in layers of sawdust.
The vintage iceboxes wait to be filled
with the particular cold of those
slices of preserved January.
The loyal ghost ship is now able
to cruise her seasonal circuit
across the unlocked lake, but must wait
for now as we must: tied to the dock
but also unmoored by uncertainties.

The empty cots wait on the dry, swept surface
of the transformed hockey arena,
organized in taped-off rows,
simultaneously reassuring and foreboding,
so still and quiet in their competent anticipation
where once my students blazed past,
Andreas and Victor and Mike and Grant and Maddie,
chasing the puck, careening in a blur of joy,
riding that long-gone ice on the keenest blades.