March 17, 2020
Just as I was pulling out of my driveway for the five-hour trip to Barre, MA and ten days at Forest Refuge, the oil change light blinked on my dashboard. Oh, no… I remembered there was some warning light flashing as I drove to FR in January of 2015 just when my mom found out that she had leukemia and her doctor suggested hospice. That was certainly a strange time to be on retreat. This time I knew I could easily take care of the oil change when I came home, but I had a sinking feeling that the warning light did not bode well.
It always takes a lot of planning to be offline for ten days. This year was no different except that I knew I would have to teach voice lessons online for two weeks when I came back. I set up zoom and researched all I could about what I would need before I left. On Monday morning, March 9, we had learned that, in the face of the growing spread of a new virus, the University would ask all students to go home for spring break, and not come back until April 5. Princeton had actually been sending alarming emails to the community since January, advising about restrictions on international travel for faculty and students and visiting guests or returning students and faculty from the countries more affected by the virus. With this new announcement everyone was scrambling to process the change of plans. The students were definitely upset and imagining the worst. I was trying to stay calm and positive while practicing “social distancing” – no lip trills in voice lessons! It actually felt familiar since I have been practicing not getting sick from my students for my entire adult life as a singer: don’t touch surfaces, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands a lot!
On Tuesday, Harvard announced that the students would go home for spring break and not come back at all. Would Princeton do the same? On Wednesday morning, I was so grateful that I would still get to be on retreat during break. I expected that everyone would figure out the new situation while I was gone and it would be waiting for me on March 21st when I got home. Little did I know how much the world would change in the days after I entered the silent space of Forest Refuge and turned off my phone. I had arranged to meet my dear friend and teacher Susan O’Brien for a walk before I started my retreat. We bumped elbows instead of hugging and marveled at the crazy situation in the world as we walked the loop road. I settled into my room, learned about my yogi job cleaning bathrooms, and relaxed into the quiet sanctuary of my retreat. Wednesday evening and most of Thursday were a welcome relief.
Then a strange sign went up on the bulletin board. “The teachers request that all yogis attend tonight’s Dharma talk.” There were only two Dharma talks a week at FR and everyone was expected to come under normal circumstances. Hummm. We all assembled at 7pm Thursday evening and chanted the refuges and precepts together. Then Annie Nugent said, “You are all expecting a Dharma talk tonight. Well, as our teacher Joseph Goldstein says, expect the unexpected. Instead of a Dharma talk, the administration has asked me to announce that because of the coronavirus outbreak, IMS and FR will close on Sunday and everyone is asked to make plans to go home.” There was a particularly heavy and stunned silence in the normally silent hall. Annie answered some basic questions and set up a safe space to talk and use the phone and computer in the front office. We sat together for a few more minutes,using our practice to get in touch with the swirling emotions, thoughts and body sensations that this news gave rise to. “Oh Shit!” was mostly what I was experiencing.
Friday was cloudy and wet with fog and drizzle. I had an interview with Annie in the morning and asked if it would be possible for me to stay until Wednesday the 18th The center was officially ceasing operations on Sunday the 15th, but the kitchen would still be providing food until the end of the next week. She said Wednesday would probably be fine, but I should check with Rebecca when I saw her on Sunday. After lunch I set out to walk the loop road and actually brought my phone with me. I turned it on and texted Michael with the news. Some updates from him greeted me – Wednesday evening: Princeton sends students home for the rest of the semester. Thursday: Broadway goes dark, The Met, pro basketball and baseball, all locked down. Unbelievable. Michael was fine at home with Louie. I texted back with a market list of emergency supplies for the freezer. My mind was spinning even as I turned off my phone and tried to walk mindfully through the mist. It was the kind of rain that didn’t actually fall, but still got you soaked as you walked through it. I think there is a Zen story about this. I treasured every breath and step here in my beloved Barre even as I knew the world outside was falling to pieces.
That evening, as I walked in one of the beautiful walking rooms I could feel myself get very concentrated even as my mind continued to spin. The thought of checking on two of my private students who are older and frailer floated into my mind and the squeeze of compassion touched my heart. Then I felt myself walking through something like the afternoon’s mist, surrounding me, suffusing me, penetrating me, until I finally dissolved into it – not rain, but Love. At first it felt like I was walking through it, but then it changed into a magical realm that I only had to turn towards and drop into, it was so close and nearby all the time. It was simple awareness, always present, and always loving. The thought “God is Love” floated in – “Of course, that’s what they say and this is why, wow!” It actually felt quite ordinary and lovely, safe and comfortable, completely normal. Later that evening I was reading some Ajahn Chah in the library and came upon this line: “the path is neither going forwards nor backwards nor standing still.” I burst into tears.
Starting on Saturday, the meditation hall was like Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. Someone would get up at the end of their meditation and take their cushions with them. They wouldn’t be returning. When I came back from my afternoon walk in the woods I saw the young man who had been leading the metta chant in the mornings loading his car. We chatted a bit. He and his girl-friend had been at FR for six weeks. They had been planning to stay until July and didn’t really have anywhere to go home to. What will you do? We don’t really know, but isn’t that what the practice is all about after all? His face was so open and clear, so calm and peaceful. Who will lead the metta chant in the morning? Why don’t you do it? Yes, I will.
Sunday morning just as folks were rustling, getting ready to leave the meditation hall for breakfast, I struck the beautiful crotales that signaled the metta chant. Another yogi at the back of the room turned on the lights and I began the chanting. At my interview with Rebecca I told her about my experience on Friday evening. She smiled. I reminded her about my troubling experience the year before of everything dissolving, and how the awareness/emptiness had felt cool and, well, empty. So, I asked her, is emptiness empty and cool or warm and full of love? She said if the awareness feels cool, there is probably still some fear there. That seemed to make sense. Could I stay until Wednesday? Probably, yes. I texted Michael with the update and he texted back that he was fine. That afternoon I chatted in the office with more folks who were leaving, one woman who had been here since December and had no idea about the virus at all. She did suspect that something was going on when she saw everyone using the hand sanitizer more frequently. She also had no place to go home to and had to choose between Canada and Denmark before they closed their boarders. Yikes.
Monday morning there were only five of us in the hall for the chanting. The lady from Denmark was leaving today, but she came to the hall after her breakfast set up job, just in time to chant with us. Very moving. Most of the day was spent savoring every breath, every step, cherishing this time here before going back to the crazy world. In the late afternoon, the kitchen set out the whole spread for tea. I think I was the only one who had any. Then, I noticed a new note on the board. Something about confirming the departure time for the remaining four yogis, and something about how the world was not the same as it had been two days ago. Yikes again! My mind and heart started to spin. Should I stay until Wednesday or leave tomorrow? Wait, just sit first and let all the thoughts and emotions swirl. After a few more hours of sitting and walking and not knowing what to do or what would happen, I saw that the other three remaining yogis had changed their departure to Tuesday. Yes, of course I would leave tomorrow as well.
Tuesday morning, there were only two of us in the hall for the chanting. I let my voice flow out strong and true. The other yogi left the hall first and I remained for a bit to cry softly. When I came into the dining room, Devin, one of the new class of teacher trainees, was chatting with Marlin the cook, former dancer and all-around fascinating person, who had made a big bowl of fresh hot scrambled eggs just for us. So, are we done, I asked? I don’t think the dining room at FR has ever had chatting at breakfast since the center opened almost 20 years ago. I don’t think the meditation hall has ever had no one sitting in it in all that time either. The three of us actually had a wonderful time, over eggs and toast, sharing experiences and news of the world. We decided it felt like an episode of Black Mirror, a particularly scary sci/fi series on Netflix. Devin and I traded contact info and agreed to sit in the hall together one more time at 9:15 before we both left. I packed the car, cleaned my room and got ready to face the world. Susan O’Brien and I had texted on Sunday about walking today, but she was sheltering at home, so I set out for NJ by 10am. There was very little traffic on the roads.
As I listened to the news on WCBS I realized that it was indeed a very different world than it had been when I came up here just six days ago. I’m so grateful that I have a bit of fortification to help me face it.