Michiana Chronicles: Begin Again
Teaching college this fall has been plenty humbling. I’m a beginner again. The students and I practice putting our phones away and making eye contact with people we’re just starting to know. We try to read moods above our masks: Is that eye-crinkle a smile? Are those raised eyebrows friendly, or not? I go to class early, to practice making small talk with them. It feels weird, but we keep at it. Students tell me how anxious they are. We explain to one another how much effort it is to keep showing up, and why it’s worth it — I hope! — to share a space with other warm, funny, interesting humans. They’re beginning college, but we’re all beginners at recovering from isolation.
I admire friends — and maybe you? — who passed pandemic time learning new skills: Sourdough bread! Feminist cross-stitch! I spent my time beginning again — re-learning skills I’d allowed to atrophy. For instance, I fell back in love, hard, with reading fiction. I’ve always read for pleasure, but I’m ashamed to say it took quarantine for me to recognize what an inattentive reader I’d become, my phone always nearby, my attention pinging from magazines, to *ping!* a new cat photo on the family chat, to *ping!* an update on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. It was mortifyingly difficult to shut my phone in another room to begin, again, to keep track of the backstories and complexities of a fictional world. Happily, a friend handed me the first of Canadian author Louise Penny’s gripping novels about chief inspector Armand Gamache, and I recovered my childhood monomania for reading ALL the novels in a series. Finally, I can feel my attention span stretching to my middle-school reading-under-the-covers-with-
I began again as a gardener, too, moving away from immediate-gratification geraniums and petunias and toward slower-to-bloom native pollinators. I can almost feel my eyes learning to refocus on more modest and fleeting beauty — as if the dials are spinning on an optometrist’s phoropter. I’m learning to love the months of anticipation until Cardinal flower shoots up its blazing, frilly brush of scarlet in July. Joe Pye Weed sure takes its sweet time to burst into a cloud of tiny rosy flowers, but the party of buzzy pollinators it attracts when they pop is mesmerizing.
Perhaps inspired by those chummy pollinators, we’ve re-taught ourselves how to invite people over, not for big potlucks, as in Before Times, but for small gatherings. I’m relearning how little it takes, really, to please a group of humans who have missed one another. A platter with a trio of cheese from our neighborhood shop, Oh Mamma’s, and some sourdough slices from across the street at Elderbread. Add a handful of nuts and dried fruit (ok, and maybe a shattered bar of Violet Sky chocolate) and that’s plenty to kindle an evening of conversation as we lean toward a popping fire.
I’m also beginning, again, to enjoy live music — another pleasure that takes some practice. I sat close enough — masked! — to the Euclid Quartet on stage at IU South Bend that I could hear the musicians’ gasps and puffs of breath, and see sweat shining as they muscled through a Shostakovich polka. While appreciating their wide-ranging program, I had to work, a bit, to keep focused on the Southern melodies raveling and unraveling through Florence Price’s G Major Allegro. I’m out of practice as a listener. Maybe that’s why I’ve also been revisiting old favorites. My family can attest to my rediscovery of ABBA — sorry, not sorry for dancing in the kitchen!— just in time for the band to begin again, too, with “Voyage,” their first album in 40 years.
When I’m feeling defeated by my efforts, I think of a conversation with a college friend, Jeanne, who loved breakfast foods so much that she told me that she overcame her fear of the dark as a child by whispering herself to sleep each night with the mantra, “Oh, breakfast is next!” Every day, another chance to begin again. Doesn’t it just make you want to dance?
Music: "Take A Chance On Me" by ABBA