FR: Coronavirus, Go Home!

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.

New Fence for Louie

February 24, 2020

We took a big step and fenced in our back yard. After over 30 years living here with four different dogs, the time had come. It was a major expense but a huge success. Louie loves it and we are greatly relieved to know he can run and chase birds while staying nearby and safe. When Louie was a puppy, we let him run around the yard and follow us here and there. We even let him run free on some of the nearby trails through preserved open space. It was thrilling to see his unbounded joy at running full speed through fields and woods. As he got older, he ranged farther away from us, but usually stayed within sight or earshot. A few times he chased some deer and I thought I would never see him again, but he always came back eventually. Then, it started taking longer for him to come back, three, five, ten minutes. Waiting with heart in mouth was nerve racking. 

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Autumn Escape Bike Trek on Cape Cod

September 30, 2019

I have been hearing about the American Lung Association Bike Trek fund raising ride on Cape Cod from a number of my biking friends. Now that I don’t have to sing High Holy Days at this time of year, I am finally free to do it. What a fantastic weekend! This was the 35th anniversary of the event. After miserable rain the past two years, the weather couldn’t have been better: bright sun, 70 degrees, not much wind or humidity. Just perfect riding conditions.

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Habitat for Humanity Ride for Homes VII

June 10, 2019

I just got back from four fabulous days of biking in Lancaster County, PA with the Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia Ride for Homes. This is the seventh year they have put on this ride to raise funds and awareness for the wonderful work that Habitat Philly does for Philadelphia families in need. This is the third time I have been involved. Emily was involved from the very beginning. I gave SAG support in 2015 and then rode my bike with Emily in 2016. This year I rode my bike again and covered over 200 miles and 13,000 feet of climbing! The ride raised over $30,000.

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Music 214 Concert

Saturday May 11, 2019

I had the best time teaching Music 214 this semester. The final concert was Saturday afternoon. Too bad it was a gorgeous day and there were a million other things going on. The audience was light but all the most important people were there and they enjoyed it immensely.  

The class was a musical theatre masterclass with eight fantastic student singers. The last time I taught it was 2010. No student pianists wanted to take the class this time, so I had my old friend Tim Brown play, which ended up being better for the student singers and more fun for me.

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Five Boro Bike Tour – cold, wet, and fantastic!

May 5, 2019

I’ve wanted to do the New York Five Boro Bike tour for a number of years, but had been put off by all the details and complications of getting into the city with my bike and gear. This year I was going to plan ahead and do whatever it took to make it happen. I registered way back in November and planned to stay overnight in the Village with my colleague Jayn Rosenfeld. She had done the ride many times and would help with logistics and moral support. She picked up my packet at the NY Bike Expo Friday morning, and I drove in Saturday afternoon and parked at a very expensive garage on 11thstreet. The weather on Saturday was lovely and I enjoyed walking my bike and overnight backpack through the streets of Greenwich Village. Jayn and I had a wonderful and long overdue visit before we each had to set out for evening plans. She and her husband were going to a concert. I met a former student for dinner and then had comps to see the first preview of the new production of Frankie and Johnnyon Broadway. Maybe it was crazy to have a night out before a big biking day, but I had a great time and managed to find my way back to Horatio St. before 11. I actually slept pretty well with Benadryl and ear plugs.

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No now, now, and the Super Moon

March 25, 2019

 

It was spring break at Princeton and I had arranged to spend 10 days at Forest Refuge in Barre. Michael was back to teaching and conducting in the second semester. He had also been in sinus rhythm for several weeks after his third cardioversion, and was significantly happier than he had been all fall. He is still not back to full energy or physical mobility, and he still enjoys his afternoon naps. This may well be the new normal for him at almost 70 years old. He assured me he would be able to handle things at home with Louie while I was gone. Continue reading

Louie at the Farm

January 30, 2019

 

Louie and I just got home from our second visit to Preston, CT and cousin Mike and Kathy’s farm. The first visit was back in December where Louie discovered dog heaven, with fields and wooded trails to run in, goats to chase, and donkeys and alpaca to investigate. The second time, he met 14-week-old Tessa, the impossibly cute golden retriever puppy, the newest member of their family. Continue reading

Welcome Louie

September 1, 2018

 

Today we got a new puppy. He is 10 weeks old. (I am writing this several months later.) His name is Meriweather Louis, after the intrepid explorer of the American West, and we got him from Cerise English Springer Spaniels in Sherman, CT. Michael had found out about the breeder, and I had visited last March, on my way home from a meditation retreat in Barre. After all the mysterious and unexpected health problems Hugo developed, we wanted to make sure our new family member was healthy and strong from the beginning, so we decided not to get another rescue. Continue reading