Friday, April 24, 2020

Craving the Familiar: Notes from the Pandemic

From my side yard. 

An acre of land surrounded the house where I lived. Every garden on that land was one that I planted. By now I would have had some pots of herbs growing inside and I would have had them ready to go outside soon. I would have had some containers of vegetables started too. Delicate green shoots pushed up through that loamy dirt. Fragrant. Stems that would thicken. Later there would be tomatoes.

The side patio was slate and lined with wide, curved garden beds. A bird bath Rob and I bought years ago in Maine sat in a small garden of hydrangeas. A copper bath birds came to swim and splash in. The many Mother Day plants I received are still growing in those many gardens.

Butterfly bushes.
Shasta daisies.

Nothing says miracle like a perennial.

Surrounding the side and back lawns were trees thick enough for bears and deer to roam, home to any number of uncounted birds. My back deck was large and comfortable. I painted there. Served family meals there. Listened to and watched birds wing from branch to branch, tree to tree. I spent every season outside there. Even in winter, Rob cleared the path of snow to the grill. Even in winter as it snowed, I would photograph from that deck, aiming the lens of my camera towards the woods.


This is the first spring in the new place I live and it is industrial in design. No real gardens. A small slice of lawn, overly planned. Antiseptic. What was I thinking when I moved here?


A need arises within me as I finish the 6th week of staying home. This pandemic has me craving the familiar.

The way the third stair from the top creaked.
The way birds made nests on the light fixtures.
How light settled and silvered the leaves of old growth trees.
The way I knew a storm was coming by hearing the birds grow industrious.
The hum of the generator as it tested itself every Sunday morning.
The way silence settled like an old friend each evening.

Nothing says safety like home.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

White Privilege and COVID 19 - A Deadly Combination: Notes from the Pandemic


Jax Weaver and her daughter want everything opened again in Texas regardless of Coronavirus.  They made a sign saying so.  They went to a rally with others and said so again.  Apparently, Ms. Weaver is confident they are healthy enough to fight the virus.  The NY Times reported, 
Jax Weaver, 33, an out-of-work photographer who lives in Austin and came to the protest with her daughter, Brooklyn, 7, said she was frustrated with the limits on daily life. Among other things, her wife was forced to cancel her in vitro fertilization."

from Tx
Ms. Weaver doesn't understand science, or worse, she doesn't care about the outcomes of a virus on the run.  Everyone who comes in contact with her, if she is positive for COVID 19, can become infected, and those who do will likely then infect others (especially in Texas where things are opening up). Some among the infected will not be as healthy as Ms. Weaver thinks she and her 7-year-old are.  Those people won't like their odds against a deadly, deadly virus. Some of those would never risk their child to such a gamble. But it won't be their decision. Ms. Weaver and those like her are making that decision for 320,000,000 citizens.

But that's a gamble Ms. Weaver is willing to take, so she and her 7-year-old daughter aren't "frustrated with the limits on daily life."


Ms. Weaver's frustration is an apt example of white privilege. White privilege says, 
I am so important and my needs are so important that it is only logical that my needs must be answered. I am entitled. My wants are critical. My judgment is the best. I know truth. I am truth. 
As a white woman I tell you we are trained from early life to believe such dangerous rhetoric, such dangerous beliefs about our own self importance and the "god-given" importance of white people. Full blown white privilege means that I would not even have a glimmer of recognition that someone else's needs might be more significant than mine, because I have been told daily by the institutions I visit and am part of that my whiteness sends me to the head of the line (well a little behind white men and white boys). Recognizing that privilege, understanding it, and working against that privilege every day matters. 

In light of COVID 19 that mattering is more overt.  White privilege is deadly.  I don't mean that metaphorically. I mean it literally. 

A woman wearing a face mask holds a placard as supporters of the Michigan Conservative Coalition protest against the state’s extended stay-at-home order.
A woman wearing a face mask holds a placard as supporters
of the Michigan Conservative Coalition protest
against the state’s extended stay-at-home order.
Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters Guardian
In Texas as of today there are 17,371 confirmed cases.  Maybe Ms. Weaver has less to worry about. Although whites make up 73.5% of Texas population, they account for only 34% of the COVID 19 cases (2018 US Census Bureau). In contrast African Americans in Texas make up 12.5% of the population and yet, they account for 10% of the COVID 19 cases in Texas. 

AP news reported, "African Americans account for more than one-third of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. where the race of victims has been made publicly known. Data from states, cities and counties show black people are regularly overrepresented compared to their share of the population:


About the same time racial breakdown of COVID 19 was being first reported, the beginning protests were also starting. What do you notice about the crowds (pictured above and below)?

Angry? (check).
White? (check)

from here.  Perhaps I am just seeing photographs of the crowds who are white and angry and are demanding states "open up" and allow COVID  19 to spread.  It does seem like a trend though.


Way east of Texas, where I live in northern NJ, there are 81,420 confirmed COVID 19 cases. On April 1 that number was 22,255 and that represented a significant spike from the week before when the number of cases was 3,675. That's why we have been trying our best to stay home and stop infecting ourselves and others.

Near here there are children living in homes with their dead relatives. They are right now waiting for some adult to come and remove the bodies of those they love. They don't understand what is happening apart from what they now know about dying. 

Given the morbidity rate of COVID 19 by race, many of those children are likely African Americans. They, unlike Ms. Weaver's 7 year old daughter, don't have time to make signs and go out and complain about their "freedom" and "rights" and "frustrations with the limits on their daily life."  

What we do know is that their daily lives will never be the same. 

I want people like Ms. Weaver who are put out, frustrated, economically challenged and so on to remember those children who never had to witness their loved ones die had the president acted when he was first briefed and shut down the country (something he never did) in January 2020. Instead of telling us COVID 19 was a democratic hoax, that it was contained, that it would dissolve in April like magic and other sick lies, had Mr. Trump acted responsibly and ordered the shut down and the development of tests, we would not be where we are today.

Those children waiting for help would be out playing, like Ms. Weaver's privileged child is likely doing today. 

Thursday, April 16, 2020

#PoetryBreak: The Doorway by Louise Glück

The Years Passing (M.A. Reilly)

The Doorway

 - by Louise Glück
I wanted to stay as I was
still as the world is never still,
not in midsummer but the moment before
the first flower forms, the moment
nothing is as yet past-

not midsummer, the intoxicant,
but late spring, the grass not yet
high at the edge of the garden, the early tulips
beginning to open-

like a child hovering in a doorway, watching the others,
the ones who go first,
a tense cluster of limbs, alert to
the failures of others, the public falterings

with a child’s fierce confidence of imminent power
preparing to defeat
these weaknesses, to succumb
to nothing, the time directly

prior to flowering, the epoch of mastery

before the appearance of the gift,
before possession.

#SOL20 - A Doorway: Notes from the Pandemic

Trying to Find Home (M.A. Reilly, Watercolor, Mixed media)


On Thursday night he went home. He wasn’t feeling well. That week, like past weeks he worked as he had for decades as a plumber in a school system.  By other people's accounts he was an honorable and kind man, skilled at the work he did.  

By Saturday his wife had gotten him into a hospital. By Monday afternoon he was dead.

I think of him, a man I really did not know, just now know of, as he made his way through what would be his last week of life. He made his way through that week not knowing that he would never see another week.

I think of his wife who is making her way through this week.


Loss is incalculable. At first it is numbing. There is no here to hold. There is a travelling of sorts that moves a body across the weeks that follow the death. The perfunctory is performed. The death is forgotten and remembered, forgotten and remembered, a tangle where the beginning piercing of pain shows itself.

Then there is the pain. 
It hurts in ways that steal the breath. It is a full body hurt.

And within all that hurt is a doorway--one that is impossible to actually know at the moment. Not knowing though, does not make it less real.

It is real and it requires us to walk through it.

David Whyte explains.

Pain is the doorway to the here and now. Physical or emotional pain is an ultimate form of ground, saying, to each of us, in effect, there is no other place than this place, no other body than this body, no other limb or joint or pang or sharpness or heartbreak but this searing presence. Pain asks us to heal by focusing not only on the place the pain is felt but also the actual way the pain is felt. Pain is a form of alertness and particularity; pain is a way in.


America, like the rest of the world is poised at that doorway. Each death diminishes us. Each death is a weight we carry. The number of dead is numbing.  


The door we must walk through reminds us of what we carry in the here and now. It is an odd blessing to stand where your feet are.

Whyte, David. Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words . Many Rivers Press. Kindle Edition. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

What Young People Say About the Pandemic (Newark, NJ): Notes from the Pandemic


The other night I was listening to pundits and experts on a news show discuss the pandemic. I thought about the high school students I had met the previous week in an English 12 class I had sat in on and the video and audio stories I had viewed and listened to that are part of the new project, Stories from the Pandemic. The distance between the concerns and stories the students shared and the talking heads on TV couldn't have been further apart.  The concerns of youth are not well represented when I listen to the discussions about the pandemic from Washington DC or state houses across the country. 

We need to listen to youth.

In thinking about the kind of assignments that might make a difference in our young people's lives, colleagues from Newark Public Schools in NJ teamed with a professor and a media company to launch, Stories from the Pandemic. Timothy Raphael, Director for the Center for Migration and the Global City and an associate professor at Rutgers-Newark and colleagues from Newark Public Schools, NJ (Brian Mooney, Liana Summey and 18 high school teachers) and department chairpersons) have teamed together with Dr. Raphael and Talking Eyes Media to produce the project.  

The site will feature the stories by high school students from American History High School, Central High School, Eagle Academy, East Side High School, Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, Technology High School, University High School, and Weequahic High School--all public schools in Newark, NJ. This is the beginning of that project. 

Tim writes:

Young people in Newark, NJ, an area with one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the country, are adjusting to life under quarantine while processing the potential impact on their families’ health and economic security. In response, Newest Americans has created Stories from the Pandemic, a web platform for young people to document their experience in real time using photography, video, writing and audio. Our goal is to give students an opportunity to observe, reflect, and share their personal stories in order to feel less isolated while becoming frontline documentarians for their local community and beyond.


Here is the first assignment.

Digital Storytelling Project
Assignment *

Through an audio recording, video recording, or photograph(s),
  1. Capture how this virus has disrupted your school year—including sporting events, concerts, assemblies, dances.
  2. Discuss how your daily life has been disrupted.
  3. Share the effect it has had on your friends and family.
  4. Describe the situation at home. How many people are you quarantined with? Who does that include?
  5. Discuss the changes that have occurred in Newark since you first learned about the virus.
  6. Include your name, age, and school.

Do this reporting from your home, out your window, via Skype/Zoom/Facetime. Do not leave your home for this project, but do document if you go out for some other reason like shopping or walking.

This is followed by ways to upload audio, video, and photographic stills.

* Discussion questions adapted from from Kelly Gallagher


Take a look and listen to the first set of stories.  We need to learn from students. High school and college age students can share stories here

Monday, April 13, 2020

#PoetryBreak: Love After Love

 A page from one of my art journals.

Love After Love
 - by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

#SOL20 - Finding Meaning: Notes from the Pandemic


"I'm trying to see this place even as I'm walking through it," is the conclusion to Catherine Pierce's poem, "Planet." That closing line has stayed with me the last few days. It expresses the way I have felt this last month. Not so much a stranger, but rather one who needs to better understand the overly familiar in some new ways. 

Pandemics shift the familiar, not by fundamentally changing what we see, but rather by changing who we are as we see. It's not the landscape that has been changing. Rather, how we see the landscape has been changing due to what we now are able to see. 

It is those new insights that I want to write about today.


Emily Esfahani Smith (2017), the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness tells us that it is in searching for meaning that solace is created.  She writes, 

"When we devote ourselves to difficult but worthwhile tasks...our lives feel more worthwhile...The most important parts of life require hard work and sacrifice...Only by facing challenges head-on can we truly find meaning in our lives" (p. 36). 

Years ago when Rob told me to live brilliantly. I first thought it was how I did tasks. Be the best mother. Live artistically. Teach well. Brilliantly was the driver of that sentence. 

As grief lifted, I began to see flickers of new insight. The verb, live,  seemed to be the most important part of the sentence. 

How we live. 
How we respond to life is what matters most. 

It wasn't what I was doing that mattered as much as it was how I lived.

What we will make of this present moment is defining in many ways.  The question I wonder for myself is: In what ways will I compose better versions of myself?

Saturday, April 11, 2020

#PoetryBreak - Planet

Newark, NJ (M.A. Reilly


-       Catherine Pierce

This morning this planet is covered by winds and blue.
This morning this planet glows with dustless perfect light,
enough that I can see one million sharp leaves
from where I stand. I walk on this planet, its hard-packed

dirt and prickling grass, and I don’t fall off. I come down
soft if I choose, hard if I choose. I never float away.
Sometimes I want to be weightless on this planet, and so

I wade into a brown river or dive through a wave
and for a while feel nothing under my feet. Sometimes
I want to hear what it was like before the air, and so I duck
under the water and listen to the muted hums. I’m ashamed

to say that most days I forget this planet. That most days
I think about dentist appointments and plagiarists
and the various ways I can try to protect my body from itself.

Last weekend I saw Jupiter through a giant telescope,
its storm stripes, four of its sixty-seven moons, and was filled
with fierce longing, bitter that instead of Ganymede or Europa,
I had only one moon floating in my sky, the moon

called Moon, its face familiar and stale. But this morning
I stepped outside and the wind nearly knocked me down.
This morning I stepped outside and the blue nearly

crushed me. This morning this planet is so loud with itself—
its winds, its insects, its grackles and mourning doves—
that I can hardly hear my own lamentations. This planet.
All its grooved bark, all its sand of quartz and bones

and volcanic glass, all its creeping thistle lacing the yards
with spiny purple. I’m trying to come down soft today.
I’m trying to see this place even as I’m walking through it.

#SOL20 - Painting: Notes from the Pandemic

Warrior (M.A. Reilly, 4.11.20, mixed media & Digital remix) 


This morning I was online and read a tweet by @pammoran:

I often turn to Pam for truth and wisdom.

So simple. Write down what matters most on this day and reference it for years to come.


Like you, I make meaning in ways that make sense to me. This morning found me waking from vivid dreams of painting. What felt like all night, I saw lines, colors, words, mark making. I have been dreaming about painting since I became homebound. 

I began the painting at the top a while ago (more than a year) and returned to it this morning. I worked with Tombow markers, acrylic, pencils, ink, white marker, gesso, found papers, and then digitally remixed (on my phone). 

It's been so long since I made anything.


Write down what matters most. 

Sometimes writing takes place with paint, found words, black marks, and gesso. Sometimes writing happens here in the digital ethos. Sometimes we write with our voices.

What remains constant is that what matters most is fluid. I had not known that as I began to write this. What matters most is fluid. Way leads on to way. The rhizome rises again.

How our ideas find expression is the way paint moves across paper like intention does across time.

Everything living moves. That may be one truth to hold during these times of overt uncertainty. Everything living moves.


What matters most now is paying attention to the slippages. That's my warrior moment.  What is slipping from my hands right now?

Right now.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

#SOL20: Pass Fail: Notes from the Pandemic

From Above


With the disruption of school, one of the many questions facing educators is how to fairly grade students. How do we determine marking period and end-of-the-year grades? Much of the dialogue about such things saddens me. The conversation feels like a Möbius strip. We go round and round and round with no exit because there are consequences to every action. Every single one.

It isn’t an easy situation, even if we want it to be. For example, students vying for college athletic scholarships are subject to the NCAA rules. NCAA determined:

“In Pass/Fail grading situations, the NCAA Eligibility Center will assign your high school's lowest passing grade for a course in which you received a Pass grade. For most high schools, the lowest passing grade is a D, so the NCAA Eligibility Center generally assigns a D as a passing grade.” From here
So pass-fail could actually harm students. 


One task raised today was the necessity for the creation of a rubric if pass/fail is selected as the option for grading students’ performance during the last marking period. I thought about what that rubric might look like and each time I tried to write the column that said Fail, I paused. 



There was simply no justification I could fathom that would allow for an explanation as to why a child failed X during a pandemic. 

No justified reason.



For each common argument, such as, “the child handed in no work during the marking period,” I thought well, that could be true.  It’s likely it is probable. But what it means can be varied. Unknown. Contradictory. 

What does ‘handed no work in‘ mean when home is crumbling? What does that mean when there are five learners under one shaky roof and the Internet is sporadic and the chrome book is being shared among all? What does it mean that your beloved grandma just died in a room far away and all alone? What does it mean? 

I used the lines of the rubric to draw a sad face with both eyes closed. I admitted defeat. I cannot and will not write that kind of document. 

This is not normal schooling. 
This is not anything we have known, even if we attempt to dress it in distance learning garb. It is not that.


Last week I sat in on a virtual class and listened when a senior said,  "Being quarantined let's you have enough time to think about life." He told his classmates that he had a  question he wanted to ask them. 

He qualified an earlier statement he had made about beliefs. He said,  "I wasn't talking about self-negative. Do you think you only focus on that because of society? What do you really think? This time makes me think about life."

In response to the student’s question, another student spoke about not liking her dark, black skin as a child and wanting to be lighter. She said, "We point out (that) as our true negative. We point out what people point out about you."

The first student pressed here and asked if that was about herself “or was that from society?"

I sat 20 miles away. Outside the sliding doors rain fell steady and though I didn’t know what to make of the conversation, I knew instinctively that these students were naming philosophical worlds.


Could you write a rubric that could contextualize the moment that gave rise to that inquiry? Do you think you would have been able to recognize, let alone evaluate, the promise of such dialogue? In our rush to quantify, we miss the present, the promise.

If nothing else, a pandemic ought to teach us to not trust so easily the quantification of our reality. Numbers are rarely truth.


The young man sitting in his home talking on a phone to classmates scattered across a city with sharply rising COVID 19 cases was asking questions philosophers have grappled with too. The young girl joined in that dialogue, questioning whether past events (in)form present beliefs of self.  Surely the bigness of these ideas gives us pause.

George Herbert Mead (1932) wrote: 
Given an emergent event, its relations to antecedent processes become conditions or causes. Such a situation is a present. It marks out and in a sense selects what has made its peculiarity possible. It creates with its uniqueness a past and a future. As soon as we view it, it becomes a history and a prophecy.

I didn’t think about Mead at that moment, but I did think of Western philosophy.  Days later I found myself reading the Mead essay and that reminded me of the dialogue between the students. Earlier tonight, nearly two weeks after the event,  a friend brought up Mead’s name after hearing the question the student posed. it reminded me that measurement is rarely tied to a singular event. Events get folded together and the interpretation of the initiating situation is influenced by what comes next and next and next.

Time has never been a linear matter. Remembering the dialogue, reading Mead, and thinking about pass/fail rubrics has me thinking about the spurious ways we measure learning. Perhaps a pandemic gives us reason to suspend such evaluation and admit we should not measure. We should not pretend that what is happening is school. We should be braver than that.


George Herbert Mead. "The Present as the Locus of Reality" Chapter 1 in The Philosophy of the Present, edited by Arthur E. Murphy. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court (1932): 1 - 31.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

SOL#20 - The Single Story: Notes from the Pandemic

Voyeur (M.A. Reilly)

Historian Frank M. Snowden in an interview with Isaac Chotiner in the March 3, 2020 issue of The New Yorker, said, "Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are." Snowden is the author of recent text, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.

Snowden’s observation that epidemics reveal who we really are rings true. I want to suggest here that who we are is not singular and the story of the pandemic is not singular either, even when it is presented as such. Snowden from Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present writes:

“Diseases do not afflict societies in random and chaotic ways. They’re ordered events, because microbes selectively expand and diffuse themselves to explore ecological niches that human beings have created. Those niches very much show who we are—whether, for example, in the industrial revolution, we actually cared what happened to workers and the poor and the condition that the most vulnerable people lived in” (Snowden, 2020).

It is these ecological niches that Snowden mentions that interest me. What ecological niches does the spread of the virus and the reporting on the virus reveal and conceal? How removed are we from the example Snowden gives of the industrial revolution and our care today for non-medical workers who work in hospitals and risk their lives as they are not afforded the necessary PPEs?  What does media tell us about the spread of the disease to people who live crowded together due to poverty?  What knowledge to we have of the spread of Coronavirus based on race?  It is unsettling to see figures being reported each day and economics and race are missing. Why is that?

We have the opportunity to tell multiple stories of the coronavirus and in doing so hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are.  I wonder if we are brave enough to demand that our government and media do so.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

#SOL20: How Hope Finds Expression: Notes from the Pandemic

Bird’s Nest 


Hope is grief’s companion. They walk together within us. Know one and often the other has surfaced as well. We worry for those whose husbands, wives, parents, grandparents have died during this pandemic. We worry that the rituals that guide us when death happens are now missing. I have thought about that a lot this last week.

I don’t remember much of the immediate days following my husband’s death. I recall bits of the service, but could not tell you most of the people who attended. I do not think I ever understood what shock and sorrow does to a body before his death. I knew though that I needed to get back to living after the brief but intense months leading up to Rob’s death. I needed to see to my child who had just turned 17. We needed to figure out how to live with such holes, such absence in our lives.


What I mostly remember in the days and weeks following Rob’s death was how hope found expression in the oddest ways. For example, one morning I noticed that on every outdoor light fixture, there was a bird’s nest. On each entry way to my home there was life beginning. In ways I could not anticipate, it felt like each was a sign beyond the borders of this world to the next.

I walked miles in the days and months that followed. I walked alone and often was accompanied by a robin that darted in an out of tree branches. I read voraciously seeking answers between pages. I listened to inspirational talks on my phone as I walked. It would take me two years to begin to listen to music as each song was a trigger to sadness until it was not.

I did four things that helped to heal me:
1. I cared for my child.
2. I wrote most every day and took up painting and kept numerous art journals.
3. I began to meditate and I walked miles and miles and miles.
4. I healed with friends who knew loss too. Some were virtual. Most were not.
I write this as I have empathy for all who suffer tonight. I feel for each of you.  I also have confidence that those who grieve now, who feel lost and numb, will make the solace that is most needed.

It comes from within.

I wish you your own bird’s nest to discover.
I wish you the grace that comes with hope.
I wish you most—those signs beyond this place and time that heal and fill you with hope. 

#PoetryBreak: Everything is Waiting for You

And Full of Sleep (M.A. Reilly)

Everything is Waiting for You

         -  David Whyte

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

Friday, April 3, 2020

#PoetryBreak: The Morning Star


Untitled, M.A. Reilly

The Morning Star

 - Philip Matthews
Satan turns on his wheel of light,
hovering inside the Senate.
A beauty confesses to the power of air,
a roaring socket of need.
The humans bear forth from their jelly,
six rose-lipped mannequins.
—Who among these is most loved?
We will be forthright in our character analysis.
We will stenograph on bright, bright branches.
Even as someone might bribe us:
with a basket of fruit to our hearth;
with a length of black thread to our dead;
with a boy with that thread in his heart;
with a boy with a snail in his heart;
with a boy with toys in his heart, who are bowing.