Saturday, September 4, 2021

It Could Have Been Otherwise

I have long loved Jane Kenyon's poem "Otherwise." Read it here. 

Kenyon catalogs the simple actions of an ordinary day with sensuous imagery. She stands on "two strong legs," eats a "ripe, flawless peach." At noon lies with her mate, eats dinner "at a table with silver candlesticks."  

Her poem is both a study in the pleasures of the moment and--in the final line--a gut-punch reminder of life's brevity.

I thought of Kenyon's poem as I biked home from my mother-in-law's on this perfect September afternoon, reflecting on the chamois soft satisfactions of the day.

Kathy, my neighbor and dear friend of 37 years, stopped for coffee. We shared video clips of our grandbabies' antics. We commiserated over our farmer-husbands' similarities. We laughed aplenty.

After an indulgent Saturday nap, I played online Bridge with my dad. It went much better than last week, when his increased confusion dragged the single hand to nearly 90 minutes of struggle. Today we kept the game to 30 minutes. A win.

I then set my timer to commit to 20 minutes of school work. I clicked "reset" two more times to clock a rock-solid hour of tending to my grade book. I made a notes chart for my freshmen's writing strengths and weaknesses.

It then took me two minutes to tie my shoes and strap on my helmet. I rode my gravel bike to Dan's mom's house for accordion practice. Two years ago, we practiced with the goal of care-center concerts. The polkas we're now perfecting are for our ears only. 

Tonight Dan and I tidied up a little to drive into town to eat at Rancho Grande. 

We're now easing into the close of day. Dan's dozing in his chair. I'm on the sofa, reflecting on the satisfaction of a most uneventful day. 

It could have been otherwise.

Be well.


"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."

--Annie Dillard 

Lucky to get even one snap with Dan. No re-takes with this photo hater.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Writing Through COVID-19: One Year Ago Today

year ago, I wrote about the first significant COVID outbreak in Cass County: 12 positive cases in a single day, the highest number since the previous high of four. The uptick included students, which sent the volleyball team into quarantine. The county's total number of cases at the time was 74. 

Today, 1522 of our county's 13,091 residents have tested positive. That means at least 11.6% of our population has had the virus. 

Fifty-five people have died.  That's one out of every 238 people in our county. 

Enough of the stats.

In talking with a teacher friend yesterday, we agreed this August feels like a repeat of last year without the can-do adrenaline surge. We are faced with the reality that, at least for the foreseeable weeks, our schools will again be destabilized by the unknowns of COVID. 

The second time around, we know some shortcuts, which is good news! I, for one, will forego the face-shield and nurses' scrubs that I wore for much of the 2020 fall semester. Was it overkill? Yup. But I was trying to establish a level of protection that allowed me to teach with confidence that I was not in the direct line of infection.

This year, vaccinated, I will still mask and maintain distance as possible. I'll still wipe down the desks between classes. (I might do this until I retire. I was surprised to see how grubby the desks were when I cleaned them each hour last year. Who wants to sit at a desk that a previous student has snotted on?)

I'm awaiting protocols for the sharing of equipment, spacing students, and managing online learners. 

I'm meanwhile considering what parameters to set within my own classroom if my district does not re-assert last year's COVID mitigations. Should I allow vaxed/unvaxed/masked/unmasked students to mingle for group work? Without a school-wide policy, the hour my students spend in my room may be their only "safety-zone" hour of the day, in which case my protective efforts are for naught. 

(This is the point at which everyone shouts "Gee! I want to teach in Iowa!")

When banning mask mandates and vaccine passports, Governor Kim Reynolds has repeatedly said "Iowa stands for freedom, liberty, and personal responsibility." I'm not sure what this means. 

Does "personal responsibility" apply only to oneself (emphasis on the PERSONAL)? Or does it include one's children? The neighborhood? The community at large? Is Ms. Reynolds asking us to step up and responsibly get our vaccines and wear masks? If so, why doesn't she expressly say it? Instead, her message is clouded. Why do I suspect she is using the phrase "personal responsibility" to mean "do what you please"? 

Responsibility is easy if you are only responsible for your own single self. As you extend responsibility to loved ones, and then to people you know, and then--even! unthinkable!--to those you DON'T know, the weight of "responsibility" increases.

Kim Reynolds, are you asking Iowans to be responsible only to themselves? That seems to be a narrow and dangerous call.

Let's look at Wolf: 
Be well.


Monday, August 9, 2021

Writing Through COVID-19: Outbreak, School, & Sweet Corn

My parents' care center notified us today of their first COVID outbreak in months. After one resident tested positive, all residents and staff were tested. Four additional residents and five staff then tested positive. This tallies 10 current cases in a facility that has logged a total of 159 infections in the 17 months since the pandemic began. 

For the time being, indoor visits and resident activities have been suspended. Families are asked to cancel all non-essential outings with their loved ones. Residents have been asked to stay in their apartments.

Three students met me in the Journalism Lab today to work on our final pages of the yearbook. I wore a mask. The students did not. 

Our local paper ran a story today explaining that our school district will follow the Iowa Department of Public Health guidelines for COVID-control in the coming school year. Of course, the IDPH is hogtied by HF 847, which outlaws school districts' right to set masking guidelines as they see fit. So much for local control.

Read the document summarizing Iowa's plan for COVID control this fall here

Or if you'd rather, scan my favorite lines. My editorializing is in bold:

  • While not required (!!!???), vaccination for everyone who is eligible continues to be the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 illness and stop the spread of COVID-19. 

  • HF 847... prohibits a school district from adopting or enforcing a policy that requires employees, students, or the public to wear a mask while on school property....[M]asks must be optional for students, teachers, and visitors. (Local control was once a pillar of Republican politics.)

  • IDPH is not currently issuing isolation and quarantine orders for COVID-19 positive or COVID-19 exposed individuals. (Freedom.)

  • LPH (Local Public Health? This acronym is not identified in the document.) cannot require schools to perform case investigations or contact tracing.

  • (In case you didn't get it the first time...) HF 847, signed by Governor Reynolds on May 20, 2021, prohibits a school district from adopting or enforcing a policy that requires employees, students, or the public to wear a mask while on school property.

  • Schools should allow students, teachers, other staff members, and visitors who want to voluntarily continue to wear a cloth face covering for reasons that make sense for their family or individual health condition to do so. (Why, thank you.)

  • The CDC issued an Order effective February 1, 2021, imposing a requirement for persons to wear masks while on public transportation conveyances, and in its Frequently Asked Questions document accompanying the Order the CDC indicates that “passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems, subject to the exclusions and exemptions in the CDC’s Order." (Children will be masked on busses, but only on busses.) 

  • HF 889, signed by Governor Reynolds on May 20, 2021, prohibits the mandatory disclosure of whether a person has received a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition for entry onto the premises of a governmental entity. (Right. Obfuscation has always been the best policy for building trust.

Happy notes:

On July 16 I posted a photo of the season's first sweet corn to our family group text and declared it the first of 30 days of sweet-corn supper. Palmer's boyfriend asked if we really ate sweet corn for a month straight. 

"Yup," she said. 

We really do.

This evening I harvested what I insist will be my last sweet-corn haul of the season. My oldest daughter mowed down her final Corn 4 a Cause rows a few days ago. Harrison's yard plot is looking sketchy. But I was able to gather 30 ears tonight, cooked some from supper and some to bag, then declared my season OVER. It wasn't 30 days, but 25 is close. Yum. 

Be well.



Saturday, August 7, 2021

Writing Through COVID-19: Day 507 - Cancer and Cows

I drove to Iowa City Friday for my annual mammogram. It was 16 summers ago that I had a mastectomy after a breast-cancer diagnosis. I was 45. My youngest children were 11 years old. At the time, I hoped to survive 10 years to see them into adulthood.

Yesterday before my appointment, I was asked to complete a survey about my cancer anxiety levels and offered services of support if my diagnosis was causing me distress. As I clicked through the list, I realized how far my cancer worries have receded. On a scale of 0 to 10, how much worry is cancer causing me? Zero. Ahhh.

EVERYONE at University of Iowa Health Care was masked. (One woman in a waiting room had removed her mask and a nurse immediately instructed her to put it back on.) Entrance to the facility was limited, and patients were not admitted without proof of appointments. 

In other words, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics are aware that the COVID virus is alive and thriving in Iowa. 

En route to and from Iowa City, I found the rest of the state to be less aware. I was in the thin minority wearing a mask when I stopped to fuel up or grab a snack.

In March 2020, I felt tense and self-conscious as I entered stores as one of the few masked shoppers.

In August 2021, I feel resigned. Weary. A little irritated.

I'm sad that my weeks of unmasked normalcy were so brief.

This evening a colleague texted to ask if I'd be masked on our first day back, Aug. 18. She said she would be. "Here we go again," she texted. 


But we have an additional layer of concern here in Atlantic. Our district's middle-school building sustained extensive water damage after a roof-top fire 11 days ago. Staff and 330 students have been displaced. The sixth- and seventh-graders will be housed in the alternative-school building. The eighth-grade students will be in our high-school building. This means adding 120 bodies to our building just as the CDC recommends we mask and distance K-12 (while Governor Reynolds has forbidden mask mandates). 

Something positive? My grandson Wolf knows the answer to the urgent question: What does the cow say? 

Be well.


Thursday, August 5, 2021

Writing Through COVID-19: Visiting the Parents

I attended an English teachers' workshop on Tuesday. When we planned it in May, the Iowa Council of Teachers of English was excited to host our first face-to-face event in almost two years. COVID was on a steep decline, we were vaxed up and ready to mingle!

When we met in Cedar Falls Tuesday, the rules had whiplashed. We were indoors. No one knew the vax status of the others in the room. (I think we should wear buttons, "I Like Ike" or "Nixon Now" style. The vax status can proclaim our political alignment and COVID transmissibility simultaneously.) I'd guess that six or eight of the 40 of us were masked. I ate my lunch on the patio where I could feel the breeze.


On my way home, I went through Ft. Dodge to visit my parents. They have moved into a two-bedroom apartment and one of my sisters is now living with them. It's not ideal. Is any elder-care setting ideal? But I was glad to see the three of them genial, safe, and hungry for sweet corn. 

I brought them a fresh batch from our field, and we enjoyed husking it on their patio. When we finished, I tossed the husks into the plastic tub I'd brought the corn in and said I'd take the husks home to my compost bucket. 

"Let me help you!" my mom chirped. 

I did not need help. The container plus husks weighed perhaps two pounds. But before I could dismiss her offer, she'd hoisted the tub onto her walker's seat and begun pushing it toward the door. 

My initial impulse was to refuse her "help." But by the grace of the pot-bellied gods, I kept my mouth shut, and my mother happily rolled my husk tub on her walker out to my car. 

She walked briskly, hands poised confidently on the walker. As we made our second turn, I wondered if she'd find her way back to her apartment; I flung prayers into the void. 

When we reached my car, I thanked her for her help. I hugged her birdlike bones against my chest. 

It was on the drive home that I started to sort out the poignancy of her helpfulness. My mother has spent her life helping, teaching, giving to others. I understand that age can rob us of our health, our mobility, our memories, our strength. 

But as my mom bustled the corn husks to my car, I saw something else. My parents have fewer and fewer opportunities to feel helpful, to be of use. 

Be well.


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Writing through COVID-19: Day 504

I took a few months off. 

After blogging through a year of COVID, by March 2021 I had returned my parents to their care center, my students and I had clawed our way through the school year, my dear ones were vaccinated, and the virus was receding in the rearview. It felt like time to wind up the blogging-through-COVID experiment.

Ahhhh. I stopped wearing a mask. I almost threw my (dozens of) masks away.

Harrison's fiance Maria's
bridal shower 

I ate in restaurants. I attended a bridal shower and a family reunion. I invited friends into my home and returned to theirs. 

I began planning for the coming school year, and how I would hold onto the positive things I'd learned about myself and my students during the COVID challenge while welcoming back the group and partner work that was out-of-bounds last year. 

I visited my children in Utah and Montana. We began counting down the months to 2022 when we hoped New Zealand would be vaccinated and let us come see Wolf (now one, walking, giving kisses, and making lots of word-like bossy sounds). 

Wolf is walking!

Life was easing back to life.


And then Delta.

You'd think by the third wave we'd be ready; we'd know what to do to stop the virus in its tracks. But as cautious as I was through the first year of COVID, it took me several days to reluctantly heed the CDC's July 27 advice and return to masking indoors.

I'd say I'm angry. We would not be HERE again if eligible people had been vaccinated. And many of those refusing the vaccine are the same people who last year let the rest of us carry the brunt of slowing the spread through layers of caution and sacrifice. 

But I'm too tired to be angry. 

I'm mostly sad.

Last year it had to be like this.
This year it doesn't have to be like this.
And yet it is.

Today I went into the high school to work with students on the yearbook and attend a meeting with two colleagues and a person from the community. As luck would have it, the Southwest Iowa Marching Band was also in the building, preparing to march in the parade that kicks off the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 11. 

This meant 100? 200? (a lot) of unmasked kids (and adults) were in AHS today, blaring on trumpets, laughing and learning, while inhaling clouds of each other's breath. At one point, I turned a corner to face a gauntlet of musicians, lining both sides of the hallway, blasting away. I simply could not walk down that phalanx, even masked. I ducked away and found another route to my room.

My room. 

While I only worked with three students today, not all were vaccinated. 

So I wore my mask. 

I do not know which of the people in my colleague/community meeting today were vaccinated, so I wore my mask there as well. 

I might call myself the Lone Masker.

My reputation precedes me: my school knows I took COVID precautions seriously last year, so no one raised an eyebrow to see me masked again today. If they grumbled about my Chicken Little behavior behind my back, I didn't hear it. 

And I'm thankful for that. 

I have more to tell you. 
I'll write again soon. 

But for now

Be well.


Monday, June 7, 2021

The Last Day of School 2021

I'm thinking about the Halloween blizzard of 1991. I'd been married for seven years. I had three small children and a fourth on the way. The sleet and ice brought down trees and powerlines. We were without electricity for days--which, on a farm with a well, means we were also without water.

At first, it was a little exciting. Storms rush the adrenaline in the Midwest!

But days in, food rotted in the warm refrigerator or froze if we set it outside. Our neighbors a mile over had a wood-burning furnace, so the kids and I hunkered there for a time while our bundled farmer Dan thawed the hog waters with a propane blow torch. 

I can still smell sour milk and feel the bone-deep chill. Mostly I remember the waiting--and the waiting--for reprieve. 

Why do I remember that ice storm now? 

Because Thursday was the last day of my 2020-21 school year. 

And teaching during the COVID pandemic had the feel of enduring a 9-month ice storm: exhausting in the demand to constantly re-think how to do even the simplest task. 

In an ice storm, the tiniest motions, like flipping a light switch, running a warm bath, or toasting an English muffin are stopped short. We have to stop and think, then search for a flashlight, put on more deodorant and a sweater, eat some crackers. 

Teaching in COVID was the ice storm.


Before COVID, my classroom furniture was all sofas and upholstered chairs. The soft seating contributed to my room's identity as a place of welcome and comfort. 

Then, last fall, all cloth surfaces were replaced with laminated desks, spaced six feet apart, all facing the same direction.

My small-group interactive teaching style was proverbially unplugged. I had to re-think not only the physical aspects of my classroom, but also my teaching philosophy.

This was hard. I normally incorporate movement and dyad conversations into every lesson. I normally sit side-by-side with my students for writing conferences. I normally prioritize students talking to each other instead of to the teacher at the front of the room. 

This year, I reverted to survival mode. I was cordoned off at from the class (within the Zoom camera's capture zone), and my students were positioned 6-feet apart and facing the same direction. 

In an ice storm, we don't worry about the nutritional balance of meals. We're just happy if we have enough canned tuna and marshmallows to keep everyone fed.

Same was true for my teaching this year. Were they reading? Writing? I'll call that good enough. 

I cut my lessons to the bone. I minimized homework, understanding that my students' home lives were every bit as disrupted as our school life. 

A blizzard cuts frivolity out of the picture. No one can bicker about which show to watch. Boredom gets a whole new definition. Keeping one's hands warm demands attention. 

I saw this in my COVID classroom. Our routines were COVID-centric: the first student entering the room grabbed the disinfectant bottle and spritzed all the desks. The subsequent students paper-toweled their desks. Multiple wastebaskets allowed students to toss their wipe-towels while still social-distancing.

With the fog of COVID worry hovering over all of us, my discipline issues were minimal this year. Maybe no one had the energy to disrupt. Maybe the smaller classes helped. Maybe students saw me (a masked, distanced, 61-year-old teacher) as a vulnerable population and mustered a little sympathy. 

Whatever the reason, I was grateful for a low-drama year in terms of student conflict and agitation. It seemed we were all moving through a fog. This isn't what I wish for us, but a survival mode made us all a little tougher--and for the most part lower maintenance.

The year is over. 
It was rough.
The toaster didn't work.
The toilet didn't flush.
The switch did not turn on the light.

But most of us got through it.

Still, I am exhausted by a year of adjusting my every natural teacher move to a COVID-compliant substitute. 

Get vaccinated so we can turn the electricity back on.

Be well.