Coronavirus Diary #27: Heavy

I knew the pandemic was heavy. Way back in April of last year, when I wrote Feeling the Funk, I was aware of the psychological weight of staying at home, isolating from our people, wearing masks, and altering the patterns of our lives. Ten months later, I’ve built up some muscle; I’ve gotten used to lugging around the burden and taking it in stride. Rather than moving in fits and starts, frantically watching the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Map as the case numbers and fatalities tick up, I have turned my gaze to daily life, kept steadily stepping, and tried to find joy wherever I can — a student who shows up to office hours, our dog neatly snuggled under his newly-crocheted afghan, or a fresh pot of chicken soup.

Yes, I plunk on the couch and watch the news each evening — looking squarely at the carnage, racial injustice, health care inequities, and political corruption we’ve all born witness to in the last months. Then, I detach via Netflix, go to bed, get up the next morning, drive to Detroit, and do my best for my students. I try to keep going and to focus on the the mission rather than what I’m missing. Yes, I watch the news, I know the deaths in the US have climbed to over 485,000. I realize that over 10% of our population has now received at least one dose of vaccine, but I am also aware that a return to anything resembling ‘normal’ is quite a way off. I am aware, but I try to not dwell on it. I try to get up every day, take care of myself, do my job, and find some joy.

So last week, when I logged into my online therapy session and heard myself sharing how thankful I was for my current job in a tone that sounded like I was delivering bad news, I was caught off guard.

I was telling my therapist that I had had an opportunity to be involved in a lived experience conversation with my colleagues — the first, actually, in what we hope to be a long series of group discussions about the varied experiences of the members of the group — what we’ve seen as white, black, male, female, gay, straight humans living in cities, suburbs, and towns. We’re hoping to learn about each other, to break down the walls of assumption and bias, and to further our quest toward equity for our students.

This is exactly the kind of work I’ve been wanting to do, so why did my tone sound so defeated, so depressed. I even remarked, “Wow. I’m making this sound like it’s bad news, when really I am very happy to be doing this work.”

Then my therapist said, “Almost everyone I’ve seen for the last couple of weeks has kind of been in a funk. We just passed the one year mark of when the first case was found in the US, and we don’t see a time when we will ‘get back to normal.'”

And I knew that — I mean, I wrote about it just a few weeks ago (post here), and I was still surprised by the heaviness of it.

The weight of living in this pandemic has been piling on. We are carrying an enormous communal grief — the loss of plans, the loss of livelihood, the loss of community, the loss of routine, and the loss of life. Some of us are feeling it more than others.

Many have experienced the uncommon loss of being separated from a loved one during their last days like my Aunt Margaret who hadn’t seen my uncle for three months when he died of complications of Covid-19. After 71 years of marriage, his last days were alone.

Many while carrying the heaviness of the pandemic, have also been lugging extra burdens such as caring for young children who are suddenly schooling at home, supporting parents with comorbidities who can’t risk going out, being displaced from jobs and struggling financially, or newly navigating the technology that allows working from home.

While the pandemic has been hard for all of us, it has been exponentially harder for people of color. Not only have they suffered and died from Covid-19 at higher rates, they’ve also been harder hit financially and have had to fight against systemic issues such as disparities in health care, education, housing, and employment. And, as always, they continue to experience violence and death at higher rates as a result of such systemic inequities.

As a white girl who, along with my husband, hasn’t missed a paycheck, is employed by an agency I love, and enjoys the highest quality health care my insurance can pay for and our money can buy, I feel the weight of this past year on my shoulders, but certainly not to the extent of those who live in the communities of color that I have worked in.

I was reminded of this over the last few weeks. One of my current students, who lives in Detroit, just missed two weeks of class because a family member with mental illness burned her family’s home to the ground. They’ve been reeling from that trauma and trying to find a new place to live, when finances are tighter than they’ve ever been before. They were already carrying too much; this must feel like more than they can bear. (Here is a GoFundMe if you feel moved to support them.)

Another current student has missed the last three weeks of school because he is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. A teenager with a gunshot wound. How heavy must it be for his parents, who were already managing life as a Black family living in Detroit in the midst of a pandemic, to now also be carrying all of the spoken and unspoken realities they and their son are now facing?

I feel an added heaviness just knowing that these students of mine who I’ve known just a few months are suffering, but what weight must their families and communities be feeling?

I got a taste of what such community pain might feel like this past week. Early last Monday morning, I learned that a former student, a member of the community of students, alumni, teachers, and parents that I was deeply involved with for almost 10 years — a classmate of two of my own children — had been shot and killed, along with her mother, in an act of domestic violence. She was 25, and now she’s gone. This determined young woman often showed up in my classroom after school to ask a question or just to chat. She’d been the first generation in her family to graduate from college, and within the last year or so, had reached out for a letter of recommendation for a position to which she was applying. After news of her death started circulating and I saw all of her classmates and friends posting on social media, I was in shock. How can such a promising young life be over?

Just three days later, I got another taste. Another former student, from that same community, a 30 year old husband and father of three, had died of a previously undiagnosed illness after five days in the hospital on life support. I remember the day he joined my class, having relocated to St. Louis from Chicago. He was a sweet soul, kind and tender. He, too, is now gone. (Here is a GoFundMe if you are interested in helping with funeral expenses and support of his family.)

These things are heavy, and our friends in communities of color have faced them so often that they know how to respond. While I am still sitting here shaking my head and wondering what happened, they’ve reached out to one another, organized GoFundMe campaigns, scheduled balloon releases, found photos of memories to post on social media, written poetry and tributes, and begun the process of mourning.

Me? I’m sitting over here still so stunned that I have no idea why my tone is depressed when I’m sharing good news. I haven’t processed the fact that my already heavy load just got a bit heavier. I haven’t realized that it’s time to put it down, to look squarely at the loss, and to grieve.

So, finally, as I write this, I am grieving — I’m mourning the loss of two young lives who will be sorely missed by their people. I’m grieving the realities of two more who are facing trauma upon trauma. I’m realizing again that the pandemic in itself is heavy and that some of us are carrying so much more.

Be kind to one another, friends. We’re in this for a while. Check in with one another — make a call or send a note.

Reach out to someone. What they are carrying is heavy; perhaps you can lighten their load.

Cast your burden unto Jesus, for He cares for you.

Gospel song.

Changing the World

In July 2020, having been offered a freshman English position at Detroit Leadership Academy, I emailed my enthusiastic acceptance. Within hours, the hiring agent reached back out to see if I would be willing to instead teach senior English. The school had a new initiative called Cougars to College, wherein this senior English course would serve as the vehicle by which all seniors could secure entrance to college. The course had never been taught before, so the person who agreed to teach it would be writing the curriculum, and because the pandemic had interrupted the students’ junior year right at the time that they would’ve been preparing for and then taking the SAT, the first unit would be a crash course in SAT prep. The rest of the first semester, the teacher would be working with the college counselor to help students navigate the college application process.

Just a couple of months earlier, my husband and I had made the decision that I would apply for high school English positions, especially those in schools where race and poverty had historically led to educational disparity. In the wake of racial unrest following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor, I felt newly called to this work because I believe that Black lives matter and I wanted to do more than just say that with my mouth.

My interior idealistic 25 year old self wanted to change the world.

I applied widely to schools in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor and landed with Equity Education, an agency committed to intentionally tearing down racial inequities — they want to change the world, too!

They were asking me to teach seniors about the college application process, even though they didn’t know that in my last high school teaching position I had worked with the counseling department to walk with high school juniors and seniors through researching colleges, writing college essays, doing SAT prep, and writing resumes. They couldn’t have known I was uniquely qualified to design and teach this course — they couldn’t have known this was more than all I had dared to hope for.

But God knew. He knew that I’d been preparing for this position for most of my career. I’d not only taught college writing and AP courses for nine years in St. Louis, I’d also taught freshman writing and developmental composition at the college level. I’d designed curriculum for rigorous dual-credit courses and for more foundational courses for emerging writers, so when they asked, “Would I be willing?” my response was, “Are you kidding? It would be my pleasure.”

Almost immediately, I started planning, preparing, and amassing materials. My coworkers at my previous job had showered me with a library full of adolescent and classic literature. A friend purchased boxes full of highlighters so that I could provide each student with a blue, a yellow, and a pink for analyzing sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Other friends (and my mom, of course) collected school supplies to stock my shelves, and one couple funded my purchase of 100 composition books. My son and I lugged all this stuff to my classroom, and there it sat for an entire semester.

Covid made it impossible for me to distribute these materials before school started. My students were on their side of the Zoom screen in their bedrooms and kitchens; I was on my side teaching from my desk. For the entire first semester, we did everything through Google classroom — every single document was electronic.

And can we just say, thank God for Zoom and Google Classroom which have allowed us to stay connected with our students! For many students, teachers are the only interaction they have outside of their homes — the only change of scenery from an otherwise endless quarantine.

We started the first semester by learning how to use Zoom, Google classroom, Gmail, and the Internet. Many of my students had never had a computer at home before, so the whole first quarter was spent on digital literacy and SAT prep. After the seniors had taken the SAT, we moved onto researching colleges and writing first a college essay and then a resume. By the end of the first semester, many students had been accepted into college, some with substantial scholarships.

Now, full transparency, we also have chronic absenteeism (30-40% of all students) even though an attendance team (and our teachers) are working diligently to get kids in class. Nevertheless, I feel good about the progress we made first semester — virtually and during a pandemic. We have students who are on track to go to college who might not have been without our concerted efforts.

Now, knowing that they are going to college and what they will find there, I feel compelled to spend the second semester preparing them, so a couple of weeks ago, when our seniors came to school to get their senior pictures taken, I was ready for them. Each student received a copy of Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, a set of highlighters, and a composition book. We are going to read the memoir, not only to learn about Noah’s experience, but also to practice reading, build stamina, and develop critical literacy skills. We are going to use the highlighters to analyze text and to build grammar skills — highlighting topic sentences or prepositional phrases as the situation demands. The composition books — they have the most transformative potential.

Last week we kicked off the second semester, which we started with a syllabus — the first one many of them had seen. I can’t hardly send a group of first-generation college students off to class without working knowledge of how to decode a syllabus.

The second day of class, I prompted my students to take out their composition books. These, I said, would be used every week. We would fill up the pages with writing. They would not be graded on spelling, grammar, or punctuation, but they would receive full credit for simply filling up pages. Any writing, I told them, improves writing, and the more you write, the more your writing will improve. It’s just that simple

I put a few prompts on the screen:

  • This pandemic…
  • Thinking about college…
  • Any topic of your choice.

Then I set a timer for 8 minutes, turned on some instrumental music, and told them to write until I said stop or until they filled a page. And then, my students and I wrote.

As the clock ticked, I checked in: “You should be filling up one page of your composition book…” then, “we are halfway through our time…” and “keep writing, even if you just write the names of the people in your family…” then, “Time’s up. Stop writing.”

I asked a few students to share how that felt. In this virtual space, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would want to share, but they did.

“I loved that; I love writing,” said one.

“To be honest, I didn’t write anything; I just sat here. I couldn’t come up with anything,” said another.

“It was alright,” offered another.

I had them take a picture of the journal with the camera on their phones. (Yes, almost everyone has a cell phone, even though some don’t have reliable wifi.) Then I had them upload their photos to Google classroom.

Later in the day, after my classes, I had time to read…about their disappointment of losing their senior year to the pandemic, of their fears about college, of the conflict they are having with their parents, of the trauma that happened to them as a child, of the chronic illness they are living with.

After a semester of listening to my voice and seeing my face on a screen, some of them trusted me enough to share a piece of themselves through their writing. I wrote back to each and every one — thanking them for sharing, commiserating with their grief, and encouraging their bravery.

Look, I realize I’m not going to close the educational gaps that exist for students of color any time soon. I am not in one virtual school year going to get all my seniors to college or give them all the tools they need to be successful there. In fact, all of my seniors won’t likely graduate on time.

But here’s the thing, if I can get a classroom full of students writing in composition books, sharing their feelings and telling their stories, I might just change the world.

That’s all I really want to do — just change the world.

But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Romans 8:25

**If you would like to help me change the world, I will always and forever be accepting composition books, highlighters, and other school supplies.

I

Coronavirus Diary #26: Needed

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I woke up to the sound of crying. As I gathered consciousness, I realized it was Chester, our twelve-year old golden retriever. He needed me to get up; he was insisting.

I glanced at my clock; it was 5am.

He continued to cry, so I rolled out of bed and took him outside. He needed to go. It was confirmed. And he’d needed me.

I’ve been needed a lot in the last week — the final week of the semester. Some students who had not fully engaged in this semester of virtual learning suddenly needed me to help them with missing assignments, to grade their late work, and to adjust their grades.

I was willing to do all this because we are in unusual times. If you were my student pre-pandemic, I might’ve accepted late work, but I would’ve never given it full credit, and I certainly would’ve given you grief. This semester, however, has been very different.

Some of my students have struggled with technology, many having never had access to a computer at home before, having never used an online interface, having never created or submitted digital documents, and often having unreliable wifi.

Some have struggled with depression. They’ve lost loved ones, their families are struggling financially, and they’re doing their senior year from their bedroom. They haven’t seen their friends, haven’t giggled in the hallways, haven’t gone to a homecoming football game, and haven’t been seen — sitting in classes, walking down halls, playing sports, eating lunch. Instead, they’ve logged into a zoom room to find some cheery middle-aged white woman talkin bout college this and SAT that. How can she possibly know our lives and what we’re going through. How can she sit up in here talkin bout applying to colleges, filling out FAFSAs and turning on cameras. Who does she think she is? She doesn’t know what we need.

I’ve been trying to be available for when they do voice a need. Chester knows when he stands next to my bed and cries, I will certainly stand up and take him outside. In the same way, I want my students to know that they can come to me, and I will do what I can to help them out.

However, after a lifetime in urban schools where teachers often leave after a semester or a year, these students are wary. I knew that walking in; building trust would be job one.

The first step in building trust is consistently showing up, so I’ve done that. Every day, I’ve been on time, used the same routine, and have given consistent messages about assignments, due dates, and goals.

It can feel so rote to me — so robotic — to move through the same motions every hour, hour after hour. We start each class with a gathering — a simple question that invites every student to weigh in, either in the chat box or out loud. Then I share the objectives for the day followed by a two-three question pre-assessment called the Do Now. Next, I share the results of the pre-test on my screen, and together we see what percentage of students knew the answers and what percentage didn’t. After that, we move into instruction which includes modeling and practice followed by me calling on students to check if they are still with me, if they understand, and if they have any questions. Then I give an assignment followed by a two-three question post-test. We take a screen break, then we come back for announcements, questions, and an opportunity for support.

It’s the same every single day, but that’s what my students need — predicability, consistency, routine. And, after five months of doing this every single day, I got a payoff this past week.

On Thursday we had curriculum distribution day. All students were to come to school to get their materials, and seniors were to pose in caps and gowns for their senior pictures. I had invited all of my students to stop by my room, luring them with the promise of prizes — t-shirts, candy, lanyards, and such. Some never made it to the building — they missed the dozen emails and phone calls along with my in-class announcements or their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t bring them — but throughout the day, I had a steady trickle of visitors.

First, my vice-principal dragged in a student who had been MIA for several weeks, until I called her dad and then her mom to let them know that if something didn’t change, she wasn’t going to pass the first semester and she wouldn’t be on track for graduation. The girl walked into my room, and she had to be introduced to me, because even though I’ve talked to her on the phone and she’s been in my zoom room quite often in the last few weeks, she’s never had her camera on. I greeted her, offered her a small prize from my “I had to be introduced to you” table, and encouraged her to keep showing up.

“I had to be introduced to you” Table

She took her prize, nodded her head, and then left. A little while later, she came back, to see if we could work through a couple assignments to bump her over the passing threshold, and we did.

A little later, an enormous mountain of a young man walked in. I recognized him right away. He’d been failing, too, until a couple weeks ago when he showed up in my after school office hours telling me that he wanted to get back on track. He came three days in a row for 90 minutes each day, finishing assignment after assignment. He, too, had moved into the realm of passing. He got to choose a larger item from my “I recognized your face” table.

“I recognized your face” Table

The visits continued. A young man stopped in to tell me that he knew he was going to fail the semester; he’d already talked to our principal and had made a plan for credit recovery. He had lost his uncle, he said, and it had really messed him up.

“I just lost an uncle, too,” I said, “Covid. Yours?”

“No,” he said, “my uncle was shot.”

“Wow. I am so sorry. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. Are you ok?”

“Yeah. I’m ok.”

“Alright. I hope I’ll be seeing you in class starting next week.”

“You will,” he said, and he made his way out the door.

A little while later, I was standing in the hallway chatting with one student who just wanted to stand and chat when I saw a couple walking toward me — the young man carrying a car seat, the young woman smiling and looking me in the eye.

“The baby!” I said as they walked toward me. These two had shared the birth of their child with me privately in the zoom room, and here they were in the flesh. They brought him close, this perfect little baby with round cheeks and thick curls, and I had to stop myself from instinctively touching him. What a perfect little baby, but his young parents looked weary and newly mature. They are both working fast food jobs, both trying to pass classes, both trying to care for this child.

What did they need from me? I’m not sure, but I let them know I saw them — their togetherness, their situation, their struggle. “You two are doing a lot right now. The best thing I can tell you is to keep showing up, keep doing your best, and keep letting us know how we can support you.”

They couldn’t stay. The baby — the beautiful perfect baby — was starting to fuss. They needed to get him home. After all, he’d waited through their senior pictures, their discussions with the principal, their gathering of supplies. So, they said their goodbyes and went on their way.

It was such a rich day — hearing students call me by name, joking with them in the hallway, giving a couple a hard time for finding a secluded corner. I felt so full as I moved around my classroom, packing up the remaining prizes and recalling all the interchanges I’d had throughout the day. I was smiling and so grateful.

Turns out that seeing my students was just what I had needed.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory!

Ephesians 3:20

**If you’d like to support my ongoing effort to reward my students for showing up and working hard, I welcome all donations of items I can use for prizes. Suggestions include but are not limited to: candy, chapstick, sample size lotion, hand sanitizer, pens, snack bars, etc.

Coronavirus Diary #25 One Year Later

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Last year at this time, we had just begun to hear the word ‘coronavirus’. News outlets were reporting the spread of what they were calling Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, a city we had likely never heard of before — 500 were infected, and 17 had died. The first case had just been documented in the United States.

Those numbers didn’t shock us really. Seventeen? and just one in the US? What’s all the excitement about?

Besides, it’s in China, right? And just one case here? Ok, next story please.

We, in our American invincibility, carried on with our lives, oblivious to how they would so quickly change. We went to work and school with bare-naked faces, for goodness’ sake. We smiled, laughed, talked, and even sang in close proximity to one another. We shook hands and high-fived with abandon. We ate in restaurants, had folks over for dinner, visited friends in the hospital, and even shared rides with one another.

Less than a year ago we could walk into church late, hang up our coat, hug a friend, and squeeze into the one remaining spot in the third pew from the front, patting the shoulder of the person in front of us before leaning in and whispering apologies to the one next to us.

But now — now, the numbers have our attention. Over 415,000 Americans have died. The world wide total is over 2,000,000, and it’s not slowing down. This week’s 7-day average for daily Covid-19 deaths in the US is just shy of 4000, and several new variants have emerged which threaten to be more contagious and possibly more dangerous.

If you don’t yet know someone who has died from Covid-19, you or someone you know has certainly tested positive, and you likely know someone who has been hospitalized for severe symptoms. It’s that prevalent.

In fact, I would guess most of us don’t make it through a day without saying the word ‘covid’ or ‘coronavirus’ or ‘pandemic’. The impact is vast. This microscopic organism has transformed the ways in which humans live their lives around the world.

Almost overnight, it sent us running to our homes, covering our faces, washing our hands, and sanitizing our surfaces. We’ve become adept at navigating the virtual world — at zooming, sending electronic documents, seeing our doctors via telehealth visits, and personalizing our work-from-home spaces.

And, we’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve grown weary.

Haven’t we?

Aren’t we tired of this?

I mean, sure, we’re resourceful. We’re team players. We’re willing to do what it takes because it is what it is, but guys, it’s wearing on me.

When we first received stay-at-home orders, none of us (except maybe epidemiologists, medical professionals, and historians) would’ve believed we’d still be here in 2021. Or at least I never believed that we would or that I wouldn’t be able to visit my parents or see my children in person for such a long time.

I wouldn’t have imagined I could watch so much Netflix, sew so many masks, or create and share so many Google docs for my students to open, complete, and submit in Google classroom.

And I wouldn’t have imagined that by the end of January 2021 we still wouldn’t have an end in sight. How about you?

I felt so hopeful in December when first the Pfizer and then the Moderna vaccines were given emergency use authorization. Then-president Trump’s Project Warp Speed promised to immunize 20 million people before the end of the year, and I believed that soon many Americans (and especially our parents) would have the vaccine and the numbers of cases would start to decrease. But guys, no one had ever done this before — speedily created and approved a vaccine and distributed it widely to the entire American population, and it didn’t go as smoothly as promised. As I write this, we are nearing the end of January and just 12 million Americans have received their first dose and only 1.7 million are fully immunized.

I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine last week and hope to be fully immunized by mid-February. However, my husband, who is doing front-line work with college students, has yet to be scheduled for his vaccine, and of our six parents — all in their 70s and 80s — only 2 have received their first dose. The rest are on waiting lists.

Nursing home residents who have been hardest hit by the pandemic were supposed to be immunized first, and it seems that some have been. However, my aunt and uncle, both in their nineties and living in separate nursing facilities, have not received vaccines, and for my uncle, it is too late. He contracted Covid-19 toward the end of December and died in the hospital on January 16.

I became further discouraged when efforts to address the pandemic seemed to have almost come to a stop since the November elections. It had felt like our leadership was saying, “Hey, Covid’s not so bad. Do what you want: wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. Use this vaccine, or don’t. China sent us this virus; we’ve done what we can. Take this $600 check; the virus will go away soon.” But this week, shortly after the inauguration, the new administration signed a pile of executive orders including one enacting the Defense Production Act to speed the production and distribution of supplies needed to fight the pandemic and another providing funding to states that will enable them to increase the number of vaccine distribution sites. At last, I thought, someone is taking decisive action that seems to acknowledge the fact that the virus is indeed still here and wreaking havoc at increasing speed.

You know that, right? January saw more deaths than any of the previous months. You might’ve missed it because of all the news about supposed election fraud, an insurrection attempt, and the manhunt for those who participated. You might not have heard that on January 20, inauguration day, the US set a new record for deaths from Covid-19– 4,409 in one day.

Yet as the numbers grow, the cries to return to normalcy get louder. In Michigan, where our Covid infection rates are much lower than they were in November, where our 7-day average for daily deaths due to Covid-19 is just 50, schools have been charged with returning to in-person instruction by March 1, 2021. Of course, the decision to do so is up to local districts, and each school is taking its own approach, but the pressure to return to normal is palpable.

Michigan restaurants are set to open back up to indoor dining at limited capacity starting on February 1. This industry has been hit hard in the past year — many establishments have closed their doors for good after experiencing unprecedented losses in revenue. Those that remain are begging for the opportunity to make a living, and we are longing for the opportunity to order a meal, hear the chatter of others around us, joke with our server, and leave an extra large tip.

We are tired of this. We are tired of staying in, wearing masks, using Zoom, sitting at computers, and standing so far away from each other. We’re missing interaction – the sound of other voices, the movement of bodies around us, the smells of life.

But it’s not over yet, guys. It’s not even showing signs of slowing down.

And even though we’re tired, even though we are longing to be with our people, even though the winter days are cold and dark and lonely, we’ve gotta hang in there.

My principal stopped in to my Zoom room the other day to visit my freshmen. She wanted to cheer their first semester efforts and let them know about a schedule change for the second semester. She told them she’d heard me gushing about them — about their hard work, the progress they’d made, and their consistent attendance. She said, “I know this has been hard, guys, being in a virtual space, working from home. It’s all different, and we’re tired. But even though it’s tough, we persevere.”

Indeed, folks. We’ve been through a lot, and it’s been hard on all of us in different ways, but we’ve got the muscle; we can do this. We can persevere. So, stay at home, wear a mask, wash your hands, and get a vaccine as soon as you can.

We’re going to see the other side of this, but we are not there yet. So, while we persevere, remember to offer yourself grace when you get discouraged or cranky, and be kind to those around you when they get that way, too.

And together, let’s pray that God will intervene and end this mess sooner than we can, because I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

    From where does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

    who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121: 1-2

Teacher Tales: A Voice from the Past

Last week, a piece came on the local news during the sports segment: Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings had named Dylan Larkin the new team captain. As I sat on the couch watching, my brain transported me back to my first classroom, near 7 Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit. It was 1989. I saw a smiling seventh grade boy sitting in the front row, center seat, wearing an oversized Yzerman jersey.

“What’s the name on the back of your jersey?” I asked.

“Yzerman, Miss Kolb,” he answered, “you don’t know who Steve Yzerman is?”

“I’m not much of a hockey fan.”

“You gotta watch the Red Wings, Miss Kolb! You’ll love it!”

This happens sometimes. My brain, crammed with thirty some years of parenting and teaching, transports me back in time and I remember a moment. I think of a student and wonder where he is or how she is doing.

In fact, being back in Detroit, thirty years after that hockey conversation and just sixteen miles southwest of that classroom, has made me think of the students in that first class more than once. It was a self-contained classroom of ten students with specific learning needs — some had learning disabilities, some had attention deficit disorder, and some, now that I think about it, were likely just behind their peers due to systemic inequities which were and have been prevalent in urban public schools.

I was fresh out of college with the degree and credentials to teach high school English, but I’d always been drawn to special ed, had always been a champion of the underdog.

Plus, I needed a job.

After graduating in December, I’d found my first gig on the afternoon shift at a group home for teenaged girls who had been court-ordered away from their families. My role was to help with homework, supervise chores and personal hygiene, and chaperone our girls on social outings. I’d had to learn physical management — how to protect myself and others in the event of a physical conflict — how to use a behavior modification system wherein our girls got rewarded for doing the right thing and penalized for missteps. They could use any points they earned for rewards and privileges.

That position taught me a lot, and I loved it, but it wasn’t teaching. So, when, by some miracle of the extensive network that is the Lutheran community, I had a conversation with a principal who was looking for a teacher for his special education seventh grade classroom, I agreed to start grad school and to try to teach these students.

Twenty-three year old me, piled all my stuff into my Dodge Colt and headed for Detroit. With a paper map unfolded on the seat next to me, I followed street by street until I got to the school where I would not only teach, but where I would live, in a small apartment in a large facility that once housed a residential school for the deaf.

Detroit Day School for the Deaf - Wikipedia

Each morning, I donned running clothes and ran the perimeter of the campus grounds that were secured by an eight-foot tall chain-link fence. After a shower and breakfast, I would walk down a network of hallways and up a couple flights of stairs to my classroom.

I taught reading, spelling, math, social studies, science, and physical education, writing lesson plans in pencil in an old school lesson plan book and doing my best to follow along in the textbooks that I’d been given.

Did I know what I was doing? No. This was definitely a fake-it-til-you-make-it situation.

My memories of that year come in flashes — students with high top fades and baggy jeans joking around in the back of my classroom, me writing math problems on a chalk board, our whole group sneaking out for impromptu recess on warm days in the Spring.

The biggest adventure of the year resulted from a reading competition sponsored by Pizza Hut. Each of my students had earned a personal pan pizza, so in all my first-year teacher ambition, I decided to pack them all up in a fifteen passenger van and take them on a field trip. It probably would’ve been adequate to take them to a local Pizza Hut, but instead, I drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor so that they could attend chapel at Concordia University, my alma mater, and then go to the Ann Arbor Hands On Museum. We ended our day at Pizza Hut, eating our free lunch before heading back to school.

Can’t you just picture 23 year old me, toting ten kids around Ann Arbor? Where in the world did I park? I don’t remember being stressed or ruffled though, not until we got stuck in a traffic jam and returned to school long past pickup time. I figured the parents would be irate, but in my memory, they were unfazed. They gathered their children, thanked me for the field trip, and headed on their way.

There’s something about the students in your first ever class — you love them with a kind of love reserved especially for them. I’ve often thought about those students, but because I moved to a different school in the northern suburbs the next year, long before social media and email, I lost touch.

Several years later, I ran into a former colleague who told me that one of my students from that first class had been shot and killed, and my chest hurt as though I’d lost one of my own. He’d been so bright, so full of personality, so full of promise.

I’ve lost others, too. One of the girls from the group home was struck in the head during a fight after she’d returned home. The brain injury left her in a coma, and she died a few months later. Another student who I met when I worked at a residential treatment facility took her own life — long before she turned twenty. A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from my former principal in St. Louis, one of our grads had been shot and killed between Christmas and New Year’s. He was 32 and a father.

I don’t like to hear these stories, but they are the ones that usually make their way to me.

Because I’ve taught in many different locations, I don’t get former students showing up in my classroom after five or ten years to say, “I was in the area, so I thought I’d drop by.” I did, of course, while I was still in St. Louis. It’s one of the sweetest experiences ever — to see that your students have grown up, achieved some goals, and they want to tell you about it. I follow many of my St. Louis students on social media. I love to see what they are doing — running their own businesses, getting their PhDs, going into teaching, and raising their families.

But the students I had before the rise of the social media — the ones from my first few classrooms — I often wonder where they are, what they are doing, and even if they are still alive.

So when I got to work Friday morning, and saw that I had a message request on Facebook messenger, I was stunned to see that it was from the young man in the Yzerman jersey, the one I had just been wondering about!

“I was reaching out…you used to be my teacher,” he started.

“Oh my goodness! I was just thinking of you the other night when I saw Izerman select his new captain!” I couldn’t type my response quickly enough. I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing from this student!

Guys, he’s a grown man — of course — with a wife and kids. He’s a police officer, and he’s stayed in touch with many of the students who shared that classroom with me all those years ago!

We messaged back and forth for a little bit, and now we’re Facebook friends. I feel like he just dropped by my classroom saying, “I was in the neighborhood.” One of my first-year kiddos, letting me know that he’s ok.

We need this kind of touch right now, don’t we, friends. We need person to person connection — remembering a teacher from a zillion years ago and sending a note just to say hi. We’re spending so much time at home on our couches, isolated from one another and watching our nation split in two on an international stage; we need to remember that we love each other one at a time.

We can decide to hate huge masses of people who seem to stand for things we disagree with, but it’s pretty hard to hate someone you shared a classroom with or someone who remembers you from way back when you ate pizza and laughed together.

It may be a challenging week with the inauguration, more demonstrations, an apparent vaccine shortage, and the ongoing pandemic. I wonder if we might all reach out and say hey to someone we haven’t seen in a while — an old friend, a former teacher, or the neighbor lady who always used to wave when you got home in the afternoon.

It just might make their whole day/week/month. It just might help turn the dial.

Much love to you, KH. Thanks for looking me up.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

The Camera’s View

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The camera can’t catch everything.

Over the weekend, a friend sent me a photo to show me how she was spending her evening. In her shot, I could see the television screen and a Piston’s game in progress; I could see her polished toes propped up in front of her, but I couldn’t see her face or who she was watching with. She showed me what she wanted me to see — just a slice of the whole.

Media cameras give us a slice, too. They use selected images and create a neatly packaged narrative to create a story about what’s happening in the world, and while a picture paints a thousand words, actual stories with all their nuances, often take thousands of words to write.

Although we’ve been watching news of Covid-19 for 10 months and we’ve seen images of sickness and death every, we have not seen the true devastation caused by this disease. The screens in our living rooms can’t show us the pain of the 375,000 families who’ve lost loved ones since March. They can’t convey the stress, the weariness, the weight that our health care workers have been carrying. They can’t transport the heaviness of heart of those who are lifting bodies into refrigerated storage units because the morgues are full.

The camera gives a glimpse, but it’s can’t convey the whole.

Last Spring, along with shots of the empty streets of downtown Manhattan and the long lines of people waiting for food, the camera also held its focus for over eight minutes as a police officer kneeled on the neck of a man while officers stood by watching him die. It turned its gaze to another man out for an afternoon jog and watched as he was chased down by men in trucks, assaulted, and killed in the middle of the street. Not long after, the camera found in its frame a man taking the last steps of his life moments before a police officer shot seven bullets into his back severing his spinal cord and rendering him paralyzed.

It showed us these moments when everything changed, but it hasn’t shown us the ongoing impact in the lives of the people who loved those men.

It hasn’t shown us the grieving families — how they struggle to face another day in their forever-altered reality, knowing that those who inflicted violence on their loved ones get to keep right on living, some not facing any consequences at all. The camera hasn’t focused on that.

Throughout the pandemic, we have watched scenes of citizens responding to circumstances that seem unjust. We’ve seen outraged masses demonstrating against police brutality and others infuriated at orders to stay at home and wear a mask. The cameras have marched along, capturing images, and creating narratives.

And this week cameras were in the crowd as the leader of the free world — a man who has never experienced police brutality or had to stand in a line to get food, who has never been forced to stay at home or wear a mask — stood on the mall in Washington, DC, dressed in a fine suit and freshly coiffed, and spoke to thousands who adore him, who view him as the answer to society’s ills, who believe him to be a man of God and a fighter for the people. Cameras recored as he spoke to these people who had travelled across the country at his bidding, paying with their own hard-earned money, or charging flights and hotel rooms on credit cards they may or may not be able to pay back. They were dressed as warriors and carrying weapons; they brought strategies and tactics and stood there ready when he told them to march. The President of the United States said “you can’t be weak” but you must “save our democracy.” And, after listening to him decry our nation for over an hour, these thousands of citizens followed his orders and marched. The camera caught them screaming war cries, pushing police out of the way, breaking windows, climbing walls, destroying property, and terrifying the nation.

Not long after, the camera showed most of them walking away without consequence — not with knees on their necks, not with bullets in their backs, not chased down by vehicles and killed in the street.

And since Wednesday, as we’ve heard cries for justice, for impeachment, for accountability and watched the tapes of that attack played and replayed, we’ve been tempted to shake our fists at our screens, shouting at the ineptitude of the local and federal governments that respond unequally to the actions of black and white bodies, at the corruption of politicians, and at the devastating division in our country. And certainly, we are justified to do so, but all of our shouting and fist-shaking will not, of itself, cause transformation.

However, if we dare, we might turn away from the camera and its limited gaze to see that the issues plaguing the United States are both national and local. They are both political and personal. The same divisions we saw through a camera lens last week, and that we have been seeing for the last several years, are present in our own communities, in our own friend groups, in our own families, and in our own selves. We are a nation — a people — infected with selfishness, pride, racism, and self-righteousness.

And, as our pastor, Marcus Lane, said this morning, “We cannot confront evil in the world without confronting it in ourselves.” No, we sure can’t.

We will not change as a culture until we, as individuals, take intentional steps toward change — toward self-examination, confession, repentance, and walking in a new way. It’s going to take a collective effort to turn the dial, and to right our course.

We’re going to have to step away from our screens and the limited view of life that they display. We’re going to have to take a broader view, putting down our finger-pointing judgmental attitudes and extending not only consequences but grace to those who’ve gotten it wrong, including ourselves. We’re going to have to open up space so that as those around us try to change course, they will find the room to do so.

Look, we are all guilty here. We are all complicit — we’ve all contributed to this very tragic narrative.

We can no longer deny that much of what the camera shows us not only illustrates but perpetuates systemic racism and the privilege of the few. We saw with our own eyes that among the insurrectionists, who were mostly white, were those who carried Confederate flags and wore t-shirts emblazoned with anti-Semitic and racist messages. It is nauseating to see such hatred so blatantly on display — right on the cameras –but really, that’s where it should be, out where we can see it, because for too long it has been carried surreptitiously inside our hearts.

I’ve been idly watching this narrative for too long.

I feel compelled to take an inward look to face the evil within myself so that I will be better equipped to call it out in our world and to give the camera something new to look at. We’ve got to right this ship, friends. We’ve got to change the trajectory of our story.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139:23-24

Intending for Change

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Many of us enthusiastically waved goodbye to 2020 with a hopeful eye toward the new year, but if the first few days of 2021 are any indication, all that’s changed is the calendar. The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over — we topped 350,000 deaths over the weekend, and the vaccine distribution is way behind schedule. Political divisions are stronger than ever — just two weeks before the inauguration of our next president, the sitting president and many governmental leaders, not to mention a large number of loyal citizens, are still attempting to contest election results. Millions across the country are struggling financially — though some got a little relief from a $600 deposit in their bank accounts this weekend, those who need it the most likely won’t see checks for weeks or even months. And certainly the racism that plagues our nation and flared undeniably in 2020 is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

Last Monday in my blog (post here), I wondered if now that we’ve more clearly seen — thanks to the pandemic — our systemic failures, our economic inequities, and our blatant racism, we would be content to continue on the course that we have been on as a country. Are we ok with what we have seen? Or are we motivated to make change?

You might be tempted to think that any attempts at change would be futile — our systems are so established, our paths so forged — how can we expect transformation? Certainly we can’t reverse climate change, eradicate poverty and homelessness, right the wrongs of racial injustice, or even get rid of Covid-19 with the flip of a switch.

And it’s true, the idea that change could happen over night — that we might restore the polar ice caps, provide housing and jobs to all the unemployed and underemployed, make up for the all injustices that have been committed against people of color, or even immunize 80% of Americans within the bounds of 2021 — is fantasy-thinking even for the most hopeful among us.

However, it would be criminal for us to throw up our hands and say, “It is what it is. Nothing can be done.” Because, my friends, something can be done.

We may not be able to flip a switch, but we can certainly turn a dial.

I have been learning about the power of dial-turning through my years-long continuing journey to health. In January of 2013, I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease which has been characterized by limited mobility and decreased energy. The severity of symptoms led me to leave my teaching career in 2014, presumably forever.

However, that summer I started making one small change after another. First I took a long rest, then I landed within a network of very supportive friends, altered my diet, found a team of health care advocates, and began daily yoga and walking. Week after week and month after month I continued despite my inability to see much progress. However, recently, six and a half years into the process, I was looking through a pile of photographs when I spotted one from just a few summers ago that took my breath away. I could barely recognize myself! I vividly remembered the day it was taken — one in which I experienced pain, limited mobility, and the ever-present need to rest.

I am no longer that person.

A few seemingly small changes and the power of our restorative God have transformed my health and enabled me to re-enter my teaching career after I was certain I was finished. My choices didn’t flip a switch, but they have certainly turned the dial.

Change, restoration, healing, and progress are possible, but they don’t usually happen over night.

While we long for sweeping transformation right this very minute — that we could eradicate the coronavirus, feed all the hungry, or have affordable high quality health care for everyone in our country, for example — these kinds of changes are going to take some time. However, if we are willing to take small intentional actions, over time we will begin to see change. Who knows, maybe a few years down the road, we’ll be watching a documentary on the Covid-19 pandemic and we won’t even recognize ourselves.

God can do anything, but He often invites His people to get involved in making change.

So, where to start? In my last post, I asked you to consider what you’ve seen over the last several months that just didn’t sit right. What bothered you? Where is God drawing your eye?

For me, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor were personal. These folks, in my mind, represented students I’ve worked with over the years and their families — people I know and love. I watched in horror as their lives were senselessly and abruptly ended. How could I live in a country that so devalued human lives and not do something about it?

Witnessing those events and the slow and inadequate response of our justice system dared me to return to the classroom. Wanting to tangibly demonstrate that I believe Black Lives Matter, I pursued positions in communities of color that have been historically underserved, and I got one.

I have been so excited to 1) be back in the classroom, even if it is a Zoom room, and 2) interact with students and their families with respect, professionalism, and empathy. However, after four months with my Black and Muslim students, I have also become more acutely aware of the racism that lives deep in my bones. It catches me off guard sometimes, and I am horrified to find myself making assumptions and judgments that have roots in ideologies that I — that we — have been learning all of our lives.

So, now that I have seen this — this racism that continues to live inside of me — what do I intend to do? Well, I have a few intentions that, with the grace of God, might cause some slow, incremental change — that just might turn the dial.

First, one of the ladies in my “breakfast club” suggested that we all take an 8-week facilitated course designed to help us interrogate our own beliefs and to expose inherent racism. Six middle-aged white women have agreed to enter a safe space, to be vulnerable, and to take an introspective view that might challenge our long-held beliefs.

At work, I have asked to join a process-oriented group of colleagues — Black, white, and Muslim, administrators and educators, experienced and novice — who will be invited to share stories, examine experiences, and engage in conversations about race. Our goal is to expose our racial biases and to challenge them so that we can better walk beside each other and our students.

With members of our church community, my husband and I are committing to an 8-week facilitated course on ways that we, as Christians, can join in anti-racist work.

These are beginnings — they are first steps. We will likely not see big sweeping changes immediately. However, participating in such conversations might shift attitudes, reshape language, and perhaps even transform beliefs and behaviors. It’s a start.

Way back in the fall of 2014, I had very little flexibility or strength. If I bent at the waist, I could not touch my toes; I could not hold a plank for any length of time, let alone do a pushup. I felt frustrated in yoga and Pilates classes because others around me seemed much stronger, much more flexible. However, one instructor after another reminded me that I had to start somewhere and that I would see progress over time. So, I kept showing up, doing the best that I could, even when it felt like I was making no progress at all. Six years later, touching my toes is still a work in progress, but I can sure hold a plank and do several push-ups. It didn’t happen with the flip of a switch, but I have gradually been able to turn the dial.

I am wondering if you might be willing to make a few small changes this year? Maybe you were moved by the economic disparities that surfaced in 2020 or by the strain on our health care or criminal justice systems. Maybe it is heavy on your heart that all the PPE we’ve used this year is going to end up in a landfill somewhere. Whatever your eye has been drawn to, I wonder if you are feeling like it’s time to take action.

None of us is responsible for fixing all of the world’s ills, but perhaps each of us can find a few small ways to nudge the dial.

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.

Colossians 3:23 NLT

p.s. If you have an idea for how you might nudge the dial, leave a comment, either on this blog, or wherever you found it — Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Let’s inspire each other as we lean into the turn and change the course of this ship.

Coronavirus Diary #24: Setting Intentions for 2021

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked at back last year’s New Year’s blog post (link to post here) — what was I hoping for as I said goodbye to 2019 and looked forward into 2020?

I was fresh off the holidays. All of our people had gathered, and though we had had our tense moments, we had also had moments of mundane togetherness, laughter, and even joy. We were nearing the end of a long, long season of grief, and wanting to move forward differently, I took the year 2020 (20/20) as an invitation to think about vision and sight. I was praying to see things differently. I had missed so much in the soldiering years. Moving forward, I wanted to see — to really see.

I wrote:

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

“Ask and ye shall receive.”

If 2020 offered us anything, it was an opportunity to notice the essential and to comprehend the meaningful. Yes, it’s been a year full of imminent danger, but if we dare, we can also see all kinds of possibility.

Remember how we were plodding through January and February, business as usual, unaware of the depth of the disruption that was about to occur? Remember how we grumbled about getting up early to scrape the ice off the car, about the extra slow commute, and about the coworker who just couldn’t seem to respect our personal space?

Remember how we would run to the grocery store over lunch hour and munch on a snack we’d just purchased on our way out the door? Remember how we offered an open bag of chips to a colleague who enthusiastically grabbed a handful and shared with the person standing next to her? Remember how normal this was?

And look at us now — even when we are wearing our masks, we find ourselves reflexively moving back to allow for six feet of space, we bump elbows if we dare to touch at all, and we glance at each other with suspicion, wondering if either is unknowingly carrying the virus, if this will be the interaction that makes us sick.

Why? Because we’ve seen like we’ve never seen before.

We’ve seen the destructive path of the coronavirus — the death toll in the United States above 330,000, hospitals across the country at capacity, refrigerated trucks serving as morgues.

We’ve seen, in the midst of this health crisis, the comorbidities of archaic infrastructure, financial instability, and centuries-old systemic racism. We’ve seen how quickly our supply chain can be disrupted, leaving us all wondering why we are out of toilet paper, flour, and personal protective equipment. We’ve seen the financial devastation as millions across the country apply for unemployment, wait in line all day to get food, and face imminent eviction. In contrast, we’ve seen the financial excess of our nation’s billionaires who’ve actually “increased their total net worth $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic so far” (Business Insider). We’ve seen people of color not only disproportionately impacted by this disease (Harvard Medical School) but less likely to get quality care and much more likely to be living in poverty, targeted by law enforcement, and incarcerated for the same crimes than white people.

If our eyes were opened in 2020, if our vision cleared, then what we saw was a country that has a lot more to worry about than the deadly virus that has traversed the globe. We’ve asked ourselves about the integrity of the news media and the reliability of science. We’ve wondered how much we value our health care workers, our teachers, our postal workers, and our other essential personnel. We’ve become more aware of how the structures of our country have shaped our ideologies, and we’re beginning to see our racism, our bias, and the ways that we ourselves perpetuate these systems and these beliefs.

And now that we have seen, what will we do? That, for me, is the question of 2021.

What do we intend to do about the things that we have seen?

This morning, as we have done most Sunday mornings since March, my husband and I logged into a Zoom room on one laptop while we streamed our church’s worship service on another. Members of our small group community meet in the Zoom room every Sunday to “go” to church. We sit in our own living rooms watching the service, singing, and praying “together.” Then, after the service, we unmute ourselves and chat over “coffee” as we would if we were physically meeting together.

Today’s conversation ranged from how was your Christmas to how are we managing the weather to when do we think we will get the vaccine. Finally, we landed on how we were feeling about life post-Covid. What will work look like? and church? and social gatherings? Will we go back to what we were doing before? or will we change based on the lessons we’ve learned over the last many months?

I sat listening for a few moments, and then I thought out loud, “unless we are intentional, we won’t change. We’ve got to be making thoughtful decisions right now about how we are going to be on the other side of this.” I think we were mostly talking about whether people will continue to work from home, whether we’ll be comfortable physically re-entering our social circles, and how we’ll interact with medicine and business, but I think we need to also think — right now — about how we can intentionally start to shift our culture.

What is it that we’ve seen that we’d like to change? Are we comfortable continuing on the course that we are on?

If, having seen our weaknesses, our broken systems, our inequities, we do not intentionally make moves to right our ship, we will continue to head the same direction we have been heading. If we continue to turn a blind eye to the lack of freedoms in the land of the free and the fear-based decisions made in the home of the brave, we will remain a country that benefits the few at the cost of the many.

It took us a long time to get here, and we won’t immediately change course. We are all going to have to lean hard into the turn, pull on all the ropes we can grasp, and keep our eyes firmly fixed on the world we hope to create. And we’re going to have to hold that position for quite some time.

If we really want a society in which all men, women, and children are treated equally, afforded the same respect and consideration, and endowed with certain unalienable rights, it’s going to look different around here. And it’s going to feel uncomfortable. We’re going to have to make decisions we never thought we’d have to make — about our homes, about our jobs, about our politics, and about our money. And if any of those things seems too dear to us, that’s probably where we need to start.

I invite you to think back with me over the last several months, what did you see that didn’t sit right? What possibilities can you imagine? Are you willing to set an intention that will enable change? Are you willing to discuss your intentions with a friend?

Can you imagine what we might do if we, the people, would be willing to intentionally move forward together? What a more perfect union we might form? What justice we might establish? What common defense we might provide? What domestic tranquility we might ensure? What general welfare we might promote? What blessings of liberty we might ensure? Not only for us, but for those who come after us?

Are we willing to be transformed?

What are your intentions?

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12: 2

Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

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When I was a very little girl, Christmas was full and magical. It began with learning our parts for the Christmas Eve program at church. For weeks we would rehearse our lines, “and there were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and our songs, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”

Mrs. Hollenbeck would herd us into the sanctuary, organize us on the steps of the chancel, and direct us to speak more loudly, “so they could hear us in the back.”

Then, on Christmas Eve, donned in our Christmas best, hair combed and inspected by our mother, my brothers, sister, and I would pile into the car and head to the church.

The place would be crawling with people decked out in their finest — all the men in suits, the ladies with lipstick and stockings and heels. We children would be corralled in the basement, lined up, and given last minute instructions before processing up the stairs, into the sanctuary, and down the aisle to the front of the church. Our families beamed at us as we sang and told the Christmas story of stars and shepherds and sheep and a swaddled baby.

After every line had been said and “Silent Night” had been sung (with the last verse a cappella, of course) we would recess down the aisle to the back of the church where the ushers waited with brown lunch bags filled with roasted peanuts, a fresh Florida orange, and several pieces of candy.

Bundled up in our coats and hats and hugging our precious loot, we were transported home, where we were snuggled into our beds, said our prayers. and went to sleep in anticipation of more magic on Christmas morning.

When we woke, we would rush to the tree to find piles of presents, then before we knew it, we were dressed and loaded back into the car for the drive to my grandparents.

After an hour of watching the familiar landscape and ticking off all the familiar milestones, I would bolt from the back seat and run to the door where my grandpa was waiting with a huge smile and open arms. Right past him, in the kitchen, was my grandmother in a dress and heels, a Christmas apron tied around her waist. She was smiling, too, and ready for her hug, even if she had been up since before dawn making a Christmas feast and setting tables with linen, candles, china, and silver.

The food was the stuff of legends — roasted lamb, beef, ham, and/or turkey, homemade rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, dressing, salads, and sides, all served family style and passed round the table from person to person. Just when you thought you couldn’t eat one more bite, grandma brought out pie and coffee, even though we’d been nibbling all day on sumptuous Christmas cookies that had been placed among the decorations throughout the house.

Full beyond full, we would roll into the living room and gather around the rotating tree that sat in a musical tree stand brought from Germany who knows when. More than 20 of us — the extended family and any additional guests that Grandpa had invited to join us for the day — received gifts selected individually and with care.

After all the packages were opened and all the paper tossed away, we children ran off to play in the basement, the men moved to the den to watch the football game, and the women assembled in the kitchen to pack up leftovers and tend to a mountain of dishes. Grandma would stand at the sink and wash, the rest stood close by, towels in hand, chatting as they wiped and carefully stacked each dish.

Then magically, just as the sun was starting to set and the kids were starting to bicker, the food would reappear again. Leftover potatoes were transformed into potato pancakes and drizzled with gravy. Meats would be warmed and salads set out, and we would eat — impossibly — again.

Then, full of food and joy and love, we would stand in line to each receive a signature grandpa handshake and loads and loads of hugs before we were piled once again into the car for the ride home. I remember pressing my cheek against the car window, gazing out at the stars, and feeling my dad reach his hand around the seat to pat me on the leg.

Of course, that was a million years ago, and certainly, not all of my Christmases since then have been so magical. Some have been disappointing like the time we excitedly drove from Missouri to Michigan for three family Christmases and then drove back, all five of us sick with the stomach flu. Others have been thick with the heartache of family brokenness — loved ones sitting in the same room unable or unwilling to speak to each other, leaving early or angry or both. In fact, even the Christmases at my grandparents’ house that I remember so fondly often ended with my dad carrying me to the car as I cried tears of fatigue and frustration.

This year, as our grown children are far-flung across the country and our parents are close enough to drive to but too dear to risk the chance of a Covid infection, we have made the choice to follow the CDC’s recommendation to not travel, to not visit, to stay at home, and stay safe.

We won’t have a Christmas Eve program at the church. We’ll stream a pre-recorded worship service on our television as we sit together on our couch. Sure, we might sing “Joy to the World,” but we won’t hear the voices of the family sitting behind us or stand in the sanctuary chatting and laughing afterward with our friends and their children who’ve all gathered for the annual celebration.

Our people will open the presents that have been delivered by the United States Postal Service in the safety of their own homes, not sitting near our tree. We’ll likely Zoom and chat for a while, but we won’t have hugs or secret handshakes or extra cups of coffee and pieces of pie. We won’t pile into the living room together to watch a movie, or hockey, or football. We won’t sit around a puzzle or pour over old pictures or play Scrabble or banana-grams or Uno.

Our little house by the river won’t be crowded by people piled on top of each other and taking turns with one little bathroom. We won’t share homemade cinnamon rolls or a roasted turkey (although you know I’m going to make one), and we won’t hear the laughter as our granddaughters run through our house in their flouncy nightgowns.

We won’t see our parents or our siblings or our nieces and nephews — we won’t get a classic photo on my mom’s couch or gather with my in-laws at a Bob Evans. I won’t hug my godmother and godfather; in fact, now that they are living in separate nursing homes, they won’t be able to hug one other either.

I know we’ve made the right choice, but as December 25th gets closer, I am feeling nostalgic and fighting melancholy. I so long to be with the people we love — to hear familiar voices, smell familiar smells — to share space and time with those we love the most, even if it’s not magical, or memorable, or perfect, or impressive.

But we can’t. Not this year.

So, I’m going to schedule some Zoom meetings, put a turkey in the oven, turn on some Christmas music, and start a new puzzle. It won’t be what I’m longing for, but it’ll have to do until it’s safe to travel the miles, to meet fact to face, to embrace one another, to share the couch and a meal and some laughs.

And once we do get to share physical space again, I think I am going to view it differently. I don’t think I’ll care if it’s magical; I think I’ll simply be grateful — so, so grateful — for our gathering to be actual.

May the Lord watch between us while we are apart from one another.

Genesis 31:49