March 21, 2020: Pandemic—And Sense of Place

March 21, 2020

Dear Middlebury Community,

We are isolated now. The Vermont campus is emptier than it was. As I got out of my car on Tuesday to retrieve things from my office, I heard bells. Bells? The Carillon? I thought there must be something happening at Mead. But no, there couldn’t be. And then I realized: George Matthew is playing to inspire us, to orient us, to keep us together. Indeed, nothing was happening at Mead Chapel. And yet everything was.

On the Monterey campus, the small lawn of Lara-Soto Adobe, where Steinbeck wrote The Pearl, is filled with colors, but empty of the people who usually delight in impromptu gatherings there. “Shelter in Place” is fully in force. Even so, Jeremy VondenBenken, known as “Baken” to his colleagues, is installing the flags on the 400 Pacific Building on Monday, to signal that classes are resuming next week. Nothing is happening on the Monterey Campus. And yet everything is.

This was a week when we focused on our core Middlebury principles: people first. We are keeping our students learning with our extraordinary faculty, and keeping our employees compensated for the incredible work they do. We put into place new academic and living policies, and new human resources policies to meet these two major goals. They are, as all policies are, imperfect guides to signal a way of living together—necessary maps to discover what we love in common. 

This was also a week that tested our second core principle: place matters. On the same day, the first positive case appeared in Addison County, and two positive cases appeared in Monterey County. In addressing the COVID19 pandemic, we are preparing to collaborate with our surrounding towns and hospitals. We want to do so in a way that honors and protects the beauty of the spaces we learn in and the people who live and learn with us.

Throughout the next week, you will be hearing more from us about the next level of policies and procedures. Rest assured our leadership teams are thinking about many things, in multiple dimensions, and playing out numerous scenarios: How can we best support students, faculty, and staff, in their enormous variety of educational objectives, as they work together on-screen? What further clarifications and details do we need to provide on remote working and human resources practices? How should we maintain academic continuity in a wide variety of programs, each with their own particular character? How can we make the best decisions now in the midst of a series of unknowns? How can we manage health decisions and educational decisions, especially when those two important values collide?

In the midst of this forest of educational decisions is something else. The ability to bend—toward each other, and into an uncertain future. The disposition to care for people who are not near to us, and whose vulnerability might not be visible. A poem, written on March 11 by Lynn Ungar, has been circulating on the web. It speaks to our condition:



What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath —

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love —

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

The poem uses images of prayer and the spiritual tradition of Judaism. But I think the images also speak to something larger, a sense of connection that includes all people, secular or religious. I emailed with Lynn Ungar on Friday. She told me people are reading “Pandemic” in homes, in hospitals, in workplaces, and online everywhere. The poem calls us to a specific form of imagining which we are rarely asked to do: Bond with each other in a way that involves not physical presence, but heart presence. How do we gather and touch each other if we cannot actually gather and touch in the real world? Ungar tells us to “Reach out your words,” “Reach out all the tendrils/of compassion that move, invisibly,/where we cannot touch.” Emails become more like letters. Zoom becomes an occasion to see someone’s face. Phone calls matter more. There are so many ways to center down.

Already, I see and hear that the people of Middlebury are responding to this need for invisible connection. Often it takes the form of humor—that special kind of humor possible only in times of common crisis. Virtual pubs are happening all across our faculty, staff, and student groups. Our advancement team is sharing photos of themselves with backdrops of places they were going to travel to, or should have traveled to by now. And often this response takes the form of an expanded spirit, such as a student D.C. career spring break trip that actually increased, rather than contracted, the number of participants when it had to go online.

Our sense of the losses of the spring semester we imagined is deep. Friends, places, mentors, routines. Our sense of anxiety at a spring semester we don’t know how to imagine is even deeper. In Monterey, in Vermont, it now feels like nothing is happening. But everything is.

Middlebury, keep reaching out with your heart.


Yours at home, for now,

Laurie L. Patton
President, Middlebury

Office of the President

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Middlebury College
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