Finding the Silver Linings in the Pandemic

From walks in nature to renewed friendships—plus some goats, cookies, and tai chi along the way—the Tufts community shares inspirational stories of unexpected positives from COVID-19
Illustration with a garden, guitar, person doing tai chi, sun in a forest, sweet rolls, book. From forest walks to renewed connections with family and friends, the Tufts community shares inspirational stories of unexpected positives from COVID-19
Illustration: Caitlin Keegan
April 20, 2021

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This has been a very tough year for the world, but despite all the losses, some people have found silver linings. We asked members of the Tufts community to tell us what unexpected things have helped them get through these dark times.

There are stories of connecting with nature—and discovering one’s own nature in contemplative practices, of building bridges with family and friends, engaging in art—and the simple happiness of not commuting and not having a cold for a year.

A Garden of Joy

I have been calling these silver linings “gifts of the pandemic.” For starters, I’ve learned I can grow a garden without killing everything in sight. Last summer, I nourished parsley, basil, thyme, mint, chives, rosemary, and tons of other plants and bushes. They brought me so much joy. In the winter I worked on an indoor garden.

Also, as cliche as it sounds, the pandemic forced me to focus on the things that matter in life: my family and a group of folks I call my chosen family. These wonderful folks are where my priority and energy rest most. —Kalimah Redd Knight, deputy director of media relations, University Communications and Marketing

A Forest Interlude

Immediately after Tufts closed last March, I went for a walk in a small tract of forest near my house, nestled at the intersection of Route 3 north and Interstate 95 in Burlington. Initially, I was a bit uncertain as to why I was doing this, beyond having some unexpected extra time. Nevertheless, I continued, initially staying on the marked trails. Eventually, I branched out to the unmarked trails, often enjoying feeling “lost” knowing that I would be “found’ when I intersected a familiar marked trail.

Illustration: Caitlin KeeganMy preference was to walk slowly, focusing upon the noise I was making and attempting to be quiet. This would often shift to trying to quiet my mind and listen to the surroundings, an endless challenge. These walks became routine as I came to know the various routes and enjoyed the quirkiness of this place, including a handful of abandoned cars and a shelter of some type made from logs and branches.

Then came winter’s transformation. I threw on my wife’s old snowshoes, an activity new to me, and ventured in as soon as possible after each snow fall. What had been trails were now blanketed with snow. Areas that were previously covered with rocks, roots, and brush—and had been uninviting for walking—were now friendly and accessible.

The forest opened up, and it felt like I could go anywhere. With our early spring, and the return of greening, flowering, bird song, and deer sightings to come, these now hundreds of hours in the forest over the past year emerge as a true gift. It was a gift unlikely to have come my way in the absence of a global pandemic, and which I now pursue automatically, my mind shifting into quieting mode as I approach the forest. —Steven Luz-Alterman, senior lecturer and associate chair, Department of Education

The Paradox of the Pandemic

For me, the silver linings were all somewhat paradoxical. First, it has become much easier to stay in touch with my European friends, because the use of Zoom to socialize has become more ubiquitous and socially accepted. Of course, we could have done this before the pandemic as well, but for some mysterious reason we didn’t.

Another paradoxical silver lining is that I haven’t had a cold for more than a year. And finally, this was the first year that I had NO problems at all remembering my students’ names; I even knew the names of students I couldn’t see! —Jan P. de Ruiter, Bridge Professor for the Cognitive Sciences, departments of computer science & psychology; director of Human Interaction Laboratory

Carbon Savings

I am a commuter from New Hampshire, and worked remotely for the majority of the year. According to this handy calculator, I was able to reduce my carbon emissions by over 6,000 pounds for the year. —Adam Cowell, studio manager, Tufts Technology Services

Sweet Connections

The pandemic has led to social isolation for many, but we have found a safe way to pursue our baking hobby and socialize with friends. As roommates and friends, we have been baking treats throughout the pandemic and wanted to find a way to distribute them—so we didn’t eat all the sugar.

We started an email list with friends and family in the area who receive a punny email almost every weekend alerting them with a time to come by for hot beverages and the dessert of the week. Everyone bundles up if the weather is cold, and we enjoy the desserts and each other’s company outside. It has been a wonderful way to see our friends in a safe manner, get to share our desserts, and spread joy in our community. —Lizzie Siegle, A10, international student and scholar advisor, Tufts International Center, and Gina Sultan, A10

The Path of Nature

Because of COVID, I discovered many nearby walking areas previously unknown to me. In Lexington there are nearly 70 walks linked together by 12 lettered routes, totaling about 40 miles of trails. They wind through open areas and long-abandoned farms, dense New England forests, neighborhoods, and schoolyards whose vacant lots were reminders of a world gone strange.

Illustration: Caitlin KeeganCharming wooden footpaths protect wetlands. Once I met a woman shepherding maybe a baker’s dozen of goats of all sizes and colors, each with a clanging bell around its neck. She brought them to graze an area called Chiesa Farm (see: A route and #22 point of interest on this map). She transported all of them together, uncaged, in her Volvo station wagon. 

Another time, I found a shaded paved bike path from Brookwood Road to North Street, which I now use as a cut through on my bicycle. Later, I branched out to Lincoln, Concord, Wellesley, Dover, Medfield, and Canton. 

In Canton, I found the Museum of American Bird Art on Mass Audubon property. In Lincoln, the outdoor sculpture park at the DeCordova Museum—itself a treasure—overlooks a trail that loops around Flint’s Pond, where the movement of water under a partially frozen surface sounds like a meditation. In Waltham’s Prospect Hill Park, there is a spectacular view spanning the Zakim Bridge to Boston’s downtown to the Blue Hills Ski area. The park is tucked behind the commercial buildings just above Route 128. 

Each walk I listened to a podcast, losing myself in voices and ideas. I smiled so much listening that my jaw often ached later. The respite afforded was both needed and welcome, and at the start of each walk, I would hear myself say, “Thank you COVID for giving me cause to walk this space.”  —Jo Wellins, executive director, University Advancement

A Maine Retreat

My husband and I have both been working from home since last March, and our pace of life has slowed down dramatically. After a remote school spring for our daughters, we realized that our 10th grader was looking at a full year of remote schooling. Our 7th grader was being offered a remote or hybrid choice. 

So we decided to move to a remote island, North Haven, off the coast of Maine, for the school year. In September, our kids started attending the local K-12 school with a total of 58 kids. They each have six kids in their grades, compared to 450 kids back home. They have left the house and taken the bus to school every day, except for the month of November when COVID cases rose.  

In addition to living in a beautiful location with dramatic sunrises and sunsets throughout the seasons, we no longer have to commute to work.  My husband and I walk together three mornings a week before we sit down to our Zoom workdays.  We are very present to our surroundings and with each other during our walks, and we’ve been able to connect more deeply that we didn’t take the time to do so before. 

We take our lunch hour very seriously by eating as a family throughout the week and concluding our lunch hour with heated games of Sushi Go!, Racko, and Monster Mayhem. We wake up to more relaxed weekend mornings that include sleeping in, making Nutella crepes, and driving to the dump. 

Before the pandemic, we were racing from crew regattas to soccer games to choir concerts to birthday parties to dinner with friends. The pandemic has truly allowed us to really slow down our fast-paced life and appreciate the moment to moment. —Sarah Stockwell, manager, external relations, Tufts Gordon Institute

Plant Prayer

There were a few casualties. Maybe even a dozen. But over this past year, I have flourished from an amateur to a semi-pro plant mom. Semi-pro may be generous, as my prayer plant is still speckled with yellow and brown spots. (Google says it’s either over watering or underwatering, and no matter how long I stare at the plant, I can’t will it to tell me what it needs.)

Illustration: Caitlin KeeganMuch of quarantine was spent struggling to see how I can continue to appreciate and love myself, to support myself and nourish relationships that were abruptly switched to a virtual format. Summer weekends that were meant to be in Newport were spent in the confines of my Cambridge apartment, tracing the same walking trail in Somerville day after day.

Much of summer quarantine was a struggle, but plant care made me responsible for a life other than my own. They eat, they need water, sun, and the occasional dusting with a damp sponge. Caring for my countless plants made it easier to justify caring for myself. 

As I open the windows to greet the spring air, I pour grains of nutrients into my watering can. The year of 2020 was a year of growth, and 2021 is reflecting the same. In this growth, I’ve found that you can find satisfaction in the smallest of things: a budding begonia, or a sprout from a ZZ plant that was seemingly in hibernation for years. 

I’m not grateful for COVID, but I’m grateful for the moments that give me pause, for the signs of life that come from sources other than my own, and for the care that I have, and can give, to others and to myself. —Maddie Key, administrative coordinator, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 

Tai Chi Connections

I’m very much a “glass half-full” type, so although this past year has been tough and I’ve missed in-person contact with my colleagues in the Tufts School of Medicine terribly, I’ve definitely found some silver linings. Working with the Health Sciences wellness advisor, I taught a couple of Zoom tai chi sessions last spring.

I realized after doing those how much better I felt—taking those 30 minutes to stretch and enjoy some mindful movement. Around the same time, my mom expressed some interest in tai chi, so I started a weeknight Zoom tai chi class for my family members and a few friends.

We started in early May 2020, and nearly a year later, most of us are still meeting four evenings a week at 5:30 p.m. for a half hour of tai chi inspired warm-ups and exercises. Since my husband and I are transplants to the Boston area, all of our family live multiple states, and we’ve not been able to visit them in person.

So it is especially delightful to look out on my Zoom grid and see family from North Carolina, Illinois, and Wisconsin out there moving in unison through these beautiful and relaxing movements.

In addition to the connections this meet-up has fostered, it has provided physical relief while I’m working in a not very ergonomically sound workspace—and it has kept me personally grounded. Having this meeting at the close of the day, just before I shut my work computer down and put it away, has given me at least some structure to working from home. —Jennifer C. M. Pustz, assistant researcher, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, School of Medicine

Song Time

​Illustration: Caitlin KeeganBesides cooking more, reconnecting with multitudes of friends—some after over a decade—and getting out to go on long walks for the first time in my life, my main pandemic silver lining was the launch of “Virtual Sing-Alongs with Rainbow Jeff,” my twice weekly half-hour Zoom series for friends, family, Tufts Community Music families and their children.

I ran it regularly from April to August, and have continued twice a month since October. Songs ranged from preschool tunes to Raffi to oldies and classic rock, with the occasional children’s story added in for good measure. I also had special guests/good friends and Jumbo alumni Lincoln Gray, A16, and Megan McCormick, A17, join from time to time, singing original songs for kids, a partnership that also produced a virtual children’s concert in December.

In addition to giving folks forced to stay indoors some screen time with a person they actually knew, the sing-alongs were incredibly beneficial to me to keep in regular touch with the people I love and have missed for the past year. As I say at the end of each sing along, “Stay safe and healthy. Stay connected. And always remember: Life’s a song. Sing it loudly!” —Jeffrey Rawitsch, A04, AG09, Granoff Music Center manager, Department of Music

Plus, Minus, Plus

As a parent with young children at home, I’m jealous to the point of being sick of articles that note how much someone has had a chance to read or the musical instrument they got to pick up because of all the “time” they suddenly had. My wife and I have struggled trying to do full-time jobs in half a day as we spend enormous time supporting our kids’ schooling and trying to provide structure and activities for them.

That said, the other side of that very coin is that we have had more time with our kids. I hardly read for anything other than immediate work demands; reading for pleasure and professional interest is rare. But now I’ve been reading with my 6- (now 7-) year-old daughter as she began to read by herself. It was great to read to her, help her learn to read, and see her get to a point where she would choose to read by herself.  A trade off, but one I was happy to make.  

Connected to that is we’ve not only plugged in more with friends, but also with Massachusetts. My wife and I travel a lot internationally, but we’ve done more travel in New England in the last year than ever before, and have come to appreciate the outdoors—often for family outings—here in a way we haven’t before. —Dave Ekbladh, professor of history

Back to Exercise Class

My unexpected silver lining was that the dance aerobics class I had gone to for years went on Zoom. I had stopped going to my exercise class a few years ago for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with my schedule. Having the class offered on Zoom made it easier to fit in, with no driving time.

I discovered that I could go to the part I liked most—the first half was floor work and weights—and leave without anyone noticing. With my current teaching schedule, I go to my half-class five times a week. I miss the camaraderie of the class, though.

I also, embarrassingly, realized how competitive I am—pushing myself to use heavier weights than the people near me, kicking higher, and other feats. I can no longer compare because everyone’s camera is off during class.

When I started going to the Zoom class, I couldn’t even find hand weights, and used the heaviest cans in the cupboard, but eventually was able to find some gray 3 lb. weights. In sum, I had an increase in both fitness and self-discovery that would have been unlikely without the pandemic. Instead of silver, I call it my gray lining in honor of my gray weights. —Lisa Gualtieri, associate professor, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine,  School of Medicine; founder, RecycleHealth

The Golden Light

I learned to survive the harsh Maine winter and spring. After 22 years of living in Texas, I have found being back in New England from January to June rather difficult. But last March we moved up to Maine, which has even longer winters and virtually no spring (except for a fearsome block of time in March-April known as Mud Time). I really didn’t know how I was going to manage.

​Illustration: Caitlin KeeganBut long walks along the Maine coast and the steadily softening and goldening of the light did work a kind of magic. It also helped that we are building a Japanese garden and I took on the terrifying responsibility of Master Gardener. Honestly, I had sleepless nights imagining how many plants would die because of me.

But it turned out to be not only an educational but an emotionally empowering experience. I spent more and more time in the garden as “spring” progressed, and I got to know it and my plants in a deep and intimate way. It also helped that an adorable family of foxes came to live near the garden. There were at least five kits, and we loved to watch them pouncing, bouncing, and wrestling their way across the garden every day. —Susan Napier, Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric, Department of International Literary and Cultural Studies

Building Community

As the Protestant chaplain at Tufts, over the past year I’ve been able to reconnect with several alumni who were involved with the Protestant Students Association and get to know a few who graduated before I began at Tufts.

We had a virtual Christmas party in December and, more recently, a virtual dinner with students to share their experiences of finding faith and community after college. Around a dozen alumni have been involved in these events. It has been a delight to see our alumni community come together in these times of isolation and I’m hopeful that this will lead to more good things to come! — Daniel Bell, Protestant chaplain, University Chaplaincy

New Beginnings

The first thing I did after my husband moved out soon after the pandemic began was buy a used china cabinet on Craigslist. A pecan-colored French provincial hutch with beveled glass doors and botanical hardware, it stood out among the usual assemblage of worn hand-me-downs and dormitory cast-offs. It was the first piece of furniture I bought in my newly single life, exchanged for a check that bore my maiden name next to the address we had shared for 19 years and clip art of puppies in baskets.

Small but deceptively heavy, the cabinet carried its weight on dainty curved feet and hid its scars behind a decorative skirt. It belonged to an elderly brother and sister whose parents had purchased the piece after emigrating to the U.S. from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. Panicked by the thought of spending another New England winter in lockdown, they had sold their family’s posh Brookline apartment and were relocating to Florida.

The china cabinet was the final piece to go, the last remnant of a life no longer being lived. Standing alone in the center of the empty wood-paneled dining room, it simultaneously seemed to take up space and blend quietly into the background.

As I traced the edges with my gloved hand, the owners anxiously pointed out its shortcomings: a small chip here, a missing hinge there, a frozen shelf that could no longer be adjusted. Where they saw imperfections, I saw character and beauty. Where they saw age and misuse, I saw history and experience. We were leftovers, discarded and incomplete, but we still had value.

That weekend, I tended to our wounds. I stripped and sanded the uneven surfaces, filled and buffed out all the scratches. I scrubbed the blackened hardware with a vinegar-soaked toothbrush and primed the raw, exposed wood. I gave it two coats of crisp, mint green paint and sealed everything in with a glassy layer of polyurethane.

Then I filled the empty shelves with objects from my past and present lives: my grandmother’s silver tea service, the menorah I bought our first Hanukkah in Cambridge, a sprig of dried eucalyptus from my wedding bouquet, the pinecones my son and I scavenged from the woods near our house, a coveted set of Japanese stoneware acquired early in the pandemic as part of a feverish online buying spree. In giving the cabinet a new life, I had unwittingly ushered in a new one of my own. I wasn’t sure how all the pieces would fit together, but what I had so far was solid and beautiful. And it was all mine. —Ronee Saroff, executive editor and editorial director, University Communications and Marketing

The Gift of Closeness

My silver lining is that my son Anders—an undergraduate at Tufts—moved back home after having lived at Tufts for three semesters. That gave us a chance to reconnect as adults—and for my son and my partner of eight years to reconnect in a good way. I have also really liked that I got to know my son’s girlfriend Sophie better. Now it’s time for Anders to move on, which he will this summer. But it has been a gift to have him at home. Jette Steen Knudsen, professor of policy and international business, Shelby Collum Davis Chair in Sustainability, The Fletcher School

Family Time

The silver lining I have found over the past year is in the increased flexibility of working from home. Because I did not have to be in the office, I was able to make several trips to spend time with my parents in the Midwest.

This flexibility was made all the more important by the fact that my father passed away in November, and I was able to be there and then stay with my mother for a month without having to take a lot of vacation time. I am also grateful that this new flexibility is being codified into policy, which will allow me to continue to visit my mother for a couple weeks at a time, more frequently than I would otherwise have been able to do. —Lisa Bloom, office assistant, Office of the Provost

Time for a Memoir

After more than 40 years at Tufts in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (formerly the Department of Drama and Dance) and a lifelong resident of Wayland, Mass., I have spent this past pandemic year writing a memoir of the myriad of experiences I have had growing up in Wayland in the 1960s-80s and being at Tufts (1980-present). The editing of the memoir is almost finished, and I so look forward to sharing this with those who might be interested. —Joanne B. Barnett, theater manager, Balch Arena Theater; director, Tufts Children’s Theater Programs, Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies

Drive Time

My silver lining: my commute time was cut in half, thanks to all those work-from-home folks. —Gary Cushing, clinical associate professor of medicine

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.