On coronavirus and emotional care

I am writing this from home, having returned from the Haverford campus this morning and participated in a backpacking trip to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia from Friday to Tuesday (yesterday). It was my first time backpacking, both challenging and fun, and I thought that a few days in the wilderness followed by some relaxing days at home for the rest of spring break would refresh my worn-down spirit for the latter half of the semester. Instead, after having no internet access while on the trip, I discover upon greedily reading the news on the car ride back yesterday that the coronavirus epidemic (now pandemic) was spreading to an alarming extent and that school districts like Lower Merion (nearby Haverford) and colleges like Amherst and Harvard were shutting down.

I dreaded the prospect of Haverford sending us home as well, selfishly hoped that it wouldn’t, but knew it would and rightfully must happen. Even before receiving the email from Haverford’s president that announced the college’s plan to convert all classes to a digital platform for at least three weeks and to minimize the number of students on campus, I packed this morning for the ride home as if I would be staying at home for an extended period of time.

Today I’ve felt sadness, shock, anger, frustration, intense worry, general anxiety and confusion about what going to happen next. I compulsively check my email repeatedly for any updates from professors and college admin and other people about how to navigate the next few weeks. I spent some hours reading Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, a novel by my favorite author which I have long wanted to read, and then lay in bed listening to Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, which I had been analyzing in my tonal harmony class. At some point I just started crying into my pillow – why am I “coming to age” in such times, why has such an awesome semester of climate organizing and musical performance among other things been forcibly disrupted, why is this coronavirus pandemic happening in the first place?

As a climate activist, I have spoken often of our world being in “crisis,” but I did not imagine feeling such “crisis” so acutely now. Perhaps, grimly, I should take this as “practice” for moments of crisis to come, if global climatic systems pass (or have already passed) their tipping point. Though the coronavirus pandemic is not directly related to the climate crisis, the same faulty political, economic, and social systems (such as public health systems) that have posed complications and hindrances to adequate U.S. response to the pandemic are also what have prevented adequate responses to the climate crisis and the environmental and social injustices it entails. I have the privilege of being able to return to my home, to have basic needs provided for, to afford medical care if I do get sick, to not have to worry too much about a severe infection myself due to my youth and general health. Many people in this country – and many college students also mandated to leave their campuses – could not say the same. Crises like these impact people in jarringly unequal ways, usually exacerbating already existing economic and social inequities. And sadly, worrisomely, they may become more frequent in the years to come.

In the next few weeks, while adapting to taking online classes from home, I commit to caring for myself, for my family, for my close friends and friendly acquaintances, and for all the other people in the local and global communities I inhabit who are also living in these uncertain times. “Social distancing” does not necessarily mean social hermitage; the plethora of cellular and internet technologies that keep us connected with one another even across great distances are tools we can use to our advantage. And sometimes I might not want to chat with anyone (I am energetically introverted), and that is okay too. Amidst all the well-informed talk about washing hands and not touching faces and monitoring our physical symptoms, we must also remember to care for ourselves and one another emotionally in this crisis, for that is what will give us strength to endure.

I think I shall write more in my time at home, whether in words or in music. Creating takes so much energy for me, such that I often think I can’t make the time to do it, and yet it often ends up being cathartic and healing. So, expect to hear more from me here some point soon. And if you ever need anything, feel free to reach out. I will do my best to support you in whatever ways I can, even if it’s just a listen and a virtual hug.

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My first semester

Wow, how time has flown by.  And how I have flown!  Or am beginning to fly, that is…

It is now winter break, which means I am one-eighth of the way through my term as a college student.  And I only have just gotten around creating this site.

But that doesn’t matter.  Allow me to reflect upon the happenings of the Fall 2019 semester, my first at Haverford College…

August 20th-23rd: Summer Social Justice Institute

I arrived on campus some days earlier than most of the first-year class to participate in a three-day intensive on storytelling and social justice with about 30 other first-years from Haverford and Swarthmore.  Boy was that an experience.  We talked a lot about identity and how we can tell stories about ourselves and our communities through the lenses of various aspects of identity such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, body, and ability, fighting against the stock narratives that other people try to tell about us.  I met so many kind people in the program, students and staff both…I cried a few times, and received many a warm embrace…we allowed each other to be vulnerable, and we grew together.

August 28th: Start of Customs Week

Customs Week is Haverford’s version of first-year orientation, expanded into nearly a full week of activities to help incoming students get to know their hallmates (i.e. their Customs group), upper-class-year supporters (i.e. their Customs team, including 2 live-in Customs persons who are sort of like RAs but don’t have disciplinary responsibilities and are thus more like live-in friends), and Haverford itself.  Customs group sessions included icebreaker activities, creating hall guidelines (particular important for my hall, which is substance-sensitive), learning about privilege and how it may show up as social injustices on campus, and introducing ourselves to the Honor Code and how it guides both academic and social life at Haverford.  Customs itself extends to beyond Customs Week, as first-years continue to be supported by their Customs Teams who occasionally lead sessions relevant to the time of year, such as one on cultural appropriation before Halloween.

September 3rd: Classes begin

That Tuesday I had my first session of three of my classes: Elementary German 1, Translation and Other Transformations, and Tonal Harmony 1.  On Wednesday I had my first Linear Algebra lecture with the campus-famous Jeff TF.  All of my courses promised to be exciting, quite germane to my interests, and together a good balanced courseload for a first semester.  Later I would realize how lucky I was to have mostly different types of homework for each class (drill exercises for German; readings, papers, and translation assignments for Translation; stylistic compositions for Tonal Harmony; problem sets for Linear Algebra).  That ensured I was never too bored or overwhelmed, unlike some classmates who at exam time had several essays or problem sets to work on at once for all their classes!

In addition to “academic” courses, I also took for P.E. credit Dances of the African Diaspora and participated in Chorale, Chamber Music (in particular a piano trio), and private piano study.

September 7-9th: Sunrise Training in Providence, RI

Three other Haverford students and I joined Sunrise Swarthmore students on a trip to Sunrise Movement’s Northeast Regional Summit to train to become more effective Sunrise leaders.  Since I already did an in-person Sunrise 101 training, I was in the 201 track and learned about organizational strategies and about crafting impactful visual messages through Sunrise actions.  After the training portion on Saturday and Sunday, one Haverford student and I stayed for the action on Monday, in which we rallied to demand that Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse support a Green New Deal.  It was my second Sunrise direct action (I attended a climate strike in Philly in March, though my role was more passive in that), and it was exhilarating.  I served a non-arrestable role of song lead, while the other Haverford student risked arrest by joining the sit-in in Governor Raimondo’s office – though there were no arrests, Raimondo apparently had enough of a scare that she escaped through a side entrance and drove away – and we saw her do that!

September 20th: #ClimateStrike at Haverford!

The training gave me the confidence to organize an on-campus climate rally as part of the Global Climate Strike.  We gathered in front of the Lutnick Library, symbolically demonstrating that academic life cannot continue uninterrupted if the very survival of students and young people is in danger.  There was a sizable crowd, including many members of the outside community as well as those at Haverford, and we alternated listening to invited speakers and chanting and singing for unity and power.  After the morning campus rally, other students and I went into Philly to join the larger strike, which was exhilarating.

October 11-20th: Fall break

Since my parents missed me so (and since home is just an hour away from college), I enjoyed a full week at home after the first round of midterms.  I visited a few of my high school teachers and told about my new life at college, which of course would only get more exciting…

November 2nd: First college concert!

My piano trio, which included a student violinist and cellist from Bryn Mawr, performed the first movement of Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio at the Bryn Mawr Family & Friends Concert.  Along with other chamber ensembles, other performers at the concert were Chamber Singers (the select choir) and several student-led a cappella groups.  I was unusually nervous for the performance, as the first time makes an important impression, but excepting when the violinist played a whole phrase a measure out-of-sync (afterward she said it was because she temporarily couldn’t hear the cellist and me with the expansive acoustics of the room), the performance was good and the rest of the evening quite enjoyable.

November 3rd: Plenary…almost

I was excited and nervous for my first Plenary, for which I was to be a discussion facilitator.  Instead of the usual Fall Plenary format of ratifying the Alcohol Policy and voting on other student-submitted resolutions, Student Council decided to postpone Alcohol Policy ratification to the spring and to hold small-group discussions of campus issues instead of large-group discussion of resolutions.  This was meant in part to engage more students and better enable quieter folks to participate in Plenary.  Unfortunately, perhaps because there was nothing to be voted on, after waiting for three hours we were still thiry-some people short of quorum, and tired students started leaving on their own accord, so Plenary didn’t happen.  The other Sunrise Haverford leaders and I, however, did manage to get a lot of students signed up for our email list through tabling and canvassing, so my disappointment was tempered by a small sense of accomplishment.

November 27th-December 1st: Thanksgiving break

A much shorter break this time, so not much to report.  I did, however, introduce my parents to store-bought vegan roast, which they enjoyed during our little Thanksgiving “family dinner,” and also complete work in preparation for…

December 6th: #ClimateStrike, version 2!

This time, the rally was more of a team effort, with about 5 students in the Sunrise Haverford hub including myself together preparing for the event.  Though it was significantly smaller than the first strike, partly because finals were beginning to loom on students’ minds, it was more publicly visible, being held in front of the Dining Center where students entering to get breakfast would see us.  We had Vince Warren, Haverford Board of Managers member and Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Ben Safran, composer, musicologist, and Haverford alum, as guest speakers, and several students and community members also offered thoughts during an open-mic period.  Unlike many colleges, Haverford has a long history of collaboration and trustful relationships between students and administration, so our action was not so much to demand things to be done (although there IS much to be done – we haven’t even divested yet…) as much as to affirm that we as a college community must work together to make our institution more just for people and planet.

After the rally, instead of heading to Philly, a friend and I joined Sunrise Swarthmore in their visit of Representative Mary Scanlon’s office to demand that she support the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act.  While we had some speakers and group singing outside the office, action participants individually entered the office and submitted a student-written letter to the secretary, giving a brief reason why the GND was important for us.  After some time, we learned that those in the office (not Scanlon herself, who was in DC) wished to invite a few students inside to chat about the GND for public housing, so some Swat students stayed and the rest of us including me left feeling an aperture of hope.

December 8th: Chorale concert

The culmination of three months of weekly two-hour rehearsals plus a three-hour-long dress rehearsal the day before, the Chorale concert performance of Händel’s Judas Maccabaeus with orchestral accompaniment was exciting and exhausting, lasting just over two hours even with the cuts the director made.  I was actually yawning at some point, not at all from boredom even during the long tacets (the music did please and fascinate me).  Leading a climate strike and preparing for a huge music performance are quite a load for a single weekend!  Yet I fully enjoyed singing and allowed myself express the music in my body, taking on the persona of a Jew experiencing grief, trial, victory, and finally joy.

December 11th: EQAT Action

Two other Haverford students and I, riding along with Sustainability Fellow Ceci Silberstein, went to the PECO service station in Phoenixville to participate in a direct action run by Earth Quaker Action Team.  Aiming to disrupt “business as usual” and demand that PECO prioritize solar power and create good, local, green jobs, we and the others in EQAT blockaded the driveways to the service station, preventing PECO service vehicles from exiting.  As we waited for PECO and police to respond, we listened to EQAT members give speeches, sang songs, held signs asking, “Climate is changing.  Why isn’t PECO?” and even at some point marched in circles because it was so cold.  Most people, including myself, held non-arrestable roles, but towards the end of the action, four people at a different driveway from where I was were arrested.  I returned to campus frantically trying to warm up my body (my feet in particular had literally become numb), with the satisfaction of having contributed to a campaign that hopefully will make change happen soon – and I’m told by an EQAT leader that PECO seems to be cracking…

December 13-15th: Sunrise Leaders of Color Training

This weekend in Durham, North Carolina was emotionally challenging yet full of personal discovery.  Though I had attended other Sunrise in-person trainings, I wanted to explore my identity as a person of color in the climate justice movement, especially because I grew up in a predominantly white and affluent suburb and was taught to assimilate into whiteness and to avoid talking about the tricky subject of race.  During the training, I frequently had the feeling that I wasn’t “color” enough to contribute to discussions and instead focused on listening to those especially of Indigenous, Black, and Hispanic identities and what stories they had to tell.  That in itself was a learning experience, but on Sunday when before meeting with the white folks from the concurrent Anti-Racist Training we discussed mainstream and marginal aspects of the culture we established during the training, I spoke up, confessing that I had felt “on the margin” (though never explicitly “marginalized”) because of my strong association with whiteness.  I was afraid people would judge me somehow, and yet after I spoke, people thanked me for speaking up and revealing what the training group collectively and implicitly had been trying to ignore, and some even confessed that they too had felt similarly but had not wanted to mention that.  While in the outside world whiteness was the mainstream and blackness was the margin, in this training blackness was the mainstream and whiteness the margin.  This experience taught me that in a culture that values compassion, empathy, and vulnerability as deeply as that of Sunrise and especially of that particular training, people can still be inadvertently caused to feel left out, and sometimes it just takes one brave act of noting the existence of that injustice to awaken people and begin to rebuild trust and a sense of belonging.

December 16th-20th: Finals week

Having only returned to campus midday on Monday the 16th, I had a shortened amount of time to prepare and complete finals than most.  Luckily, two of my four academic classes only had normal-length in-class exams (Elementary German and Tonal Harmony), which were completed the week before, so I only needed to take a Linear Algebra self-scheduled final exam and complete a project for Translation Theory.  Before I could focus on them, though, I had to prepare for the Chamber Music concert on Tuesday evening as well as for the piano jury on Wednesday (those taking private lessons for credit must perform in front of three faculty members at the end of the semester).  In the concert, my ensemble again performed the first movement of Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio as well as the second movement of Tailleferre’s Piano Trio.  Both the concert and the jury were satisfactory for me, though on Wednesday after the jury my somewhat suppressed nervousness manifested (as it often does after a performance) and I felt unable to focus or even to nap until later in the evening, when I studied for the Linear Algebra exam I planned to take Thursday morning (we can choose to take self-scheduled exams in any of the pre-determined exam blocks during finals week, and we can also choose from a list of permissible rooms where to take the exam unproctored).  Since this class was my second exposure to linear algebra (I first learned many of the concepts in MathILy 2018), I generally found the course material on the easier side, but worried that I was being complacent and would be caught off-guard, I assiduously studied for the exam the night before and even had a mild nightmare probably from my nervousness.  I felt so glad afterwards to have gotten it over with.

Finally, I had my project for Translation Theory, which I chose to be a “translation” of the Chinese poem 《施氏食狮史》(”Story of Shi Eating Lions”) into a piano piece.  The poem, when read aloud in Mandarin (and no other Chinese dialect), consists of only the phoneme “shi” repeated in all of the tones of the dialect, so to transfer that repetitiveness in music I chose to compose using a single pitch class, a G-sharp in any octave on the piano.  Though I worked on the project from Thursday afternoon to about 1am on Friday, it was out of creative enjoyment and a compulsion to be very thorough about my translation process in the two-page reflection I had to write, so I did not quite pull off the anxiety-laden “all-nighter” that some students put themselves through (and hopefully I won’t ever have to!).

December 20th: Return home!

After my usual Friday breakfast shift at the Dining Center and a few hours of determined toiling to finish an application for a fund (with a break to get lunch from a food truck providing students free food), I pack my bags and ride with my father back home.

So…that was a lot for a first semester.  (And a very long first post for a blog!) I have really set myself a high bar for the rest of my time at Haverford!  But now I have a month to restore my energies and prepare myself for the semester ahead – already I have Earth Day climate action and summer employment as thoughts in my head…

Everything in its rhythm, Margaret!  You’ll be fine 🙂
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