We have no neighbors across the street, save the red fox and the gray fox, the mulberry trees, and the bunnies. This spring, rather suddenly, the mulberry trees fruited in full flourish. I asked my husband why we had never noticed the trees before since we have lived in this home for the last five years. He suggested that maybe this new situation of solitude forces us to notice things differently.
When my first-year students left the university for Spring Break, they expected to return to campus but I did not. I imagined their leftovers, like the roux my student had special ordered, rotting in their dorm refrigerators. More than their food, their hopes were also languishing. Musicals, frat parties, workouts with friends were all abandoned.
When my father’s assisted living facility closed its doors to outsiders to prevent infection, I became his sole connection to the world. Somehow, his stepdaughter and adopted son, and his volunteer who visited weekly fell away. No former neighbors met him for too-sweet cappuccinos on Sundays. Every day I was there—on the phone, ordering socks, toothpaste, and other sundries from states away. I ordered black socks for him, thinking that they would blend in with his dark pants. He criticized me for my poor choice. Apparently, socks need to stand out. He was pleased when the red socks arrived.
The mulberries caught my eye when I was trying to look out twenty feet in an effort to escape the fatigue of staring at the computer screen. The berries were so bright, tiny pink polka dots on a green shirt.
The challenge of teaching students how to write online confounded some of my colleagues. When classes depend on conversation, the comradery of people sharing eye contact and raised voices, the heat of an exciting idea, what happens when we teach online? Information is fleeting, emotions are muted—the screen is cold.
After about three weeks of quarantine, my father’s relatively new flip phone started to decline. Our conversations dwindled to his attempting to call me several times a day only to hang up before I could greet him. Other times, the phone did its own thing to my father’s amazement: “Do you hear it ringing? It’s still ringing! Do you hear it?” I could not hear it ringing. My ability to communicate with him had been swapped out with a cruel comedy sketch of missed cues and dropped lines. Isolated in his room, the phone’s malfunction was everything; the phone’s nonstop ringing was his only companion.
The three of us, my husband, daughter, and I ventured out, maskless, to assess the mulberries. Walking across the street, we crossed into another time. We were foragers, like my husband’s grandmother, who used to make mulberry pies. He told us that some experienced mulberry gatherers shake the trees with a sheet underneath them to catch all the ripe ones. We returned another day with a wicker basket and a ladder, but we did not shake the tree. Sometimes, mulberries would fall from the tree and land directly in the basket. Small berries bring subtle excitement.
“How can I keep my students from falling out?” I asked myself. I became obsessed with helping them to stay grounded. I changed all of my assignments and expectations and focused on relevant work, spotting fake news, and creating consistency, weekly journals. I wanted them to stay in the basket.
My husband bought a new flip phone for my father, two actually. He drove to another city to purchase it, where he braved all the unmasked shoppers who did not share our apprehension. The second phone came from a different store. Buying a flip phone is an anachronism in its own right. There are very few, and their shortcuts and instructions seem to be kept secret. We wanted to program the phone in case the assisted living helpers had never encountered anything like it before.
From noisy dice to waiting for others to take their turns, board games waste my time. But how do you savor time together when it all feels the same? Mulberry picking became our shared pastime. One day, after taking the ladder across the street again, the three of us dye our hair in purple and red streaks, little homages to the unripe and dark berries.
I charge my students with adopting a wellness habit. I tell them to watch a TED Talk and send them links about meditation and exercise, filling the message with exclamation marks and hopeful enthusiasm. They also have to write me weekly letters, reflecting on their classes or daily lives. The class becomes about something other than writing. I find a smart image on Facebook: “Before your students can Bloom they have to Maslow.” Yes. It’s not possible to do creative and analytical work when survival matters. Their grandparents start to die. Their parents’ anxiety affects them. They begin to grieve the loss of their university lives. They write me kind, vulnerable letters.
When the new phone arrives, my father cannot use it. He has forgotten how to work the speed dial. I send screen shots to the facility and ask for maintenance man. Meanwhile, my father berates me for not being good at helping him. He calls us sixteen times in half an hour, trying to call other people.
Beyond the mulberries, there is the piano. My daughter plays Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” several times a day. The songs shift to match her mood. Sometimes “Happy” is angry and Hallelujah’s staccato lilt mixes with mournfulness.
One of my students writes that she lives in California, where she drives out to the ocean for long, contemplative walks. She learns to appreciate the outdoors in a way she never did before–there is nothing else to do. Another student’s home is on a tiny island cut off from the large city nearby. The island’s residents have put up signs to warn city folks to stay away in an effort to protect their town. Another student spends her weeks making collages of far-away places. Unable to travel, she begins to roam through art. Some students begin to lose contact. When I notice, I send out warnings on their behalf. When the people on the stump become unsteady, you pivot and regain balance.
I spend a portion of each day talking with my father’s medical providers, who have paperwork to fill out, or his caregivers, who tell me that he needs to be nice. The idea of telling a grown man, who looks down on me and all others, to be nice is ridiculous. I want to tell the caregivers that at least they get to go home. When he has problems at two in the morning, he calls me. My ring makes everyone in the house jumpy because a dad-related emergency seems imminent.
Classes are over. Although we did not finish the semester in person, my students were fleshed out. They told me what they ate, which classes bored them, how they struggled with their families. They sent me videos of yoga on their patios, runs with their parents, photos of their cars, videos in their living rooms, drawings of their siblings. I saw them more completely than any other class and yet we did not meet after Spring Break. My students write me that they will continue to keep journals, that they value the record they have made of this moment for future generations to read. Online classes became a team building exercise where people must cling tightly together to stay on the stump. Most of my team has not fallen off, and they are stronger for it.
Freezer bags full of mulberries sit in the icebox, waiting to be made into jam. The panicked phone calls ebb and flow. We continue in the pivot.
A researcher and essayist, Ayla Samli has a PhD in cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing. Her work can be found in The Dillydoun Review and Our State Magazine. She lives and teaches in North Carolina.