The airport’s silence for the last plane to Cleveland was unsettling. SFO isn’t known for a quiet atmosphere but the Delta variant had the terminal in quiet contemplation, a colorful rainbow of masked people of all ages spaced apart by their own volition, waiting patiently to be packed shoulder to shoulder on an overbooked four hour red eye. The silence was soon broken, the quick clanging of bag handle snaps and masked yawns exposed through tired eyes, as the shuffle to board and sleep took precedent.
Boarding was swift, but not without the strangeness that travel brings. An older woman asked the young man at the window if he would possibly switch seats with her so that should could sit with her husband. The man flatly refused with a unexpected snap—the sort of attitude I’d attribute to a teenager—and then quickly walked back his attitude with an apology but would still not move, the window seat on a red eye on a four hour commercial hop being as close to comfort as possible. The woman, resigned, turned back to sit down only then to notice that I had slipped in behind her and sadly quipped “I suppose you really want that window seat too.”
“I do want this window seat, but I’ll happily move if it’ll make your evening a little better.”
This response took her by surprise, her happiness caught through her Duchenne smile, hidden by her mask but given away by the crinkle in the corner of her eyes.
As I collected my bag, she offered profuse thanks. “Thank you I really need to be next to my husband, this is emergency flight for us…the hospital…”. Her voice begin to trail, her mind racing to find words she did not yet have for a situation she may not have yet come to terms with. I did not pry or prompt, instead stepping into the aisle and offering what little I could. “I hope the seat brings you a little bit of comfort and do hope every thing is okay.”
She nodded, the smile under her mask prevalent but solemn in the eyes, and proceeded to her seat.
Not exactly how I expected to head out on the road after nearly 18 months to start my doctorate.
I had started the doctoral program at the beginning of August officially though I had been reading for a month before to orient and revisit a number of academic concepts in research and statistics that in all honestly, was at best a vague memory and in most cases a blank page. This was the first in person residency, a meeting of professors, advisors, staff, and newly minted doctorate students to dive into a new life altering reality. I had completed the initial gauntlet—the reading, the paperwork, the assignments and assessments—by those measures I was ready to go.
Measuring twice, the reality was different: I was terrified.
The anxiety of the situation gripped my inner sense of self on that long initial flight and did not recede as I arrived at the the hotel; was I really doing this? You haven’t been in a classroom let alone in research for 15 years. Don’t remind me voice-in-my-head. Case Western Reserve is Research I institute, you couldn’t have made this harder. I’m aware, thanks. Read the room, you are outclassed. Thanks for your support voice-in-my-head, you always know just the rights words to say.
As I sat on the edge of my hotel room bed before that first day questioning my very existence, butterflies floated around my stomach on the tips of my nerves, my heart finding an elevated rhythm. This was a familiar and welcome feeling I knew, a small reminder that being off the road and out of the mix, my body and mind at least remembered the routine that had served well. To hell with the naysayers and the voice-in-my-head. I was doing this.
I confident bounce in my step, I strolled through the muggy morning air passing masked nurses in scrubs from the hospital across from the hotel. The quick snap of thunderstorm suddenly sounds from above and large drops of rain begin falling with a notable thud. I paused looking up at the sky, the sun backlighting white specular streaks of cloud edges and a warm tint of sepia and platinum tones, rain drops striking my masked face.
This was going to be a good day.
I walked briskly through the rain a short quarter mile and found myself swept into a whirlwind of activity. Welcome, here’s a health pack, you have to get COVID tested, 100% vaccinated status on campus but masks are required. Do you have your badge? Badge gets you into where you need to go. Desk name plate? Here’s a temporary, we’ll have the permanents made up for next residency. Are you excited? We’re excited, first time back in 18 months.
Within 5 minutes shaking hands was out of the question even if COVID decorum constrained the practice, my arms full of materials and verbal volleys of rainchecks as I was lead into the pavilion of the George S. Dively Building. The two story building offered a grand staircase and was flooded in natural light that the grey clouds could not prevent, its open air a welcome respite from the hotel room. Nods and hello’s and good-to-see-you’s as we pass well stocked catered tables—a feature for residencies it turns out—up the stairs passed well adorned walls and alcoves filled with museum art—charcoal, lith, photography, sculpture—into finally a large classroom.
I gently dropped arms of stuff on a table socially distanced within the rather large space, scanning the room to see the name cards of nine others. The open air and excitement of the pavilion was constrained here, the room quiet with an unspoken tension as people settled. First day of school in a long time someone murmured from across the room. You could feel that unease, that unknown. As my own panic begin to set in, that tension was quickly broken with one spoken word heard from the front.
In that moment the tension diminished and the room widened.
“Coffee sounds good.”
The week would bring unknowns and challenges, but also new friends and colleagues. The adventure was just getting started.