Coronavirus Diary: Thoughts from Confinement

I don’t even remember when all of this started, do you? The information has been coming in waves and the impacts on our lives seem to change in the moment.

I first heard about the coronavirus sometime in January. At that point it seemed so removed. I understood it was in China and that a whole city was on lockdown, but that information seemed very intangible at the time. What did I know about a city of 11 million on the other side of the world? How could I conceptualize what a shut down of that magnitude might look like?

On February 11, I must have been driving home from celebrating my mom’s birthday with her when I heard the news that the coronavirus had been given the name Covid 19, and still, though I knew that a whole cruise ship had been detained with 700 sick onboard, I couldn’t picture it impacting my life at all.

One month later, as I was driving back to my mom’s to support her recovery from surgery, President Trump was preparing to address the nation and announce a halt on all travel from Europe. This began a series of quickly escalating restrictions. That was March 11, 18 days ago.

By Friday, March 13, many schools had closed and many businesses began to send their workers home.

By Thursday, March 19, I, too, was working from home.

On March 24, Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, declared that all in the state should shelter in place.

And here we are.

How quickly we have all shifted into this new reality! We’ve moved our necessary supplies home, we’ve shifted all our meetings online, and we’re learning how to stay connected from a distance. And that’s the best-case scenario.

Some have lost their jobs, gotten sick, and even lost their lives. In fact, as I write this on Sunday afternoon, the grand total of those infected is over 700,000 world wide. Over 34,000 have died.

This past week, I was having a video chat with a parent when she shared that her father was in the hospital sick with the coronavirus. His health was declining, and he would likely not make it. The hardest part, she said, was that no one could be with him. He was suffering alone.

And many are — suffering alone.

Countless elderly spend their days in locked down facilities, confined to their rooms, restricted from visits. Many others live alone and are doing their best to care for themselves, get the supplies they need, and bide their time.

But the two populations that keep popping up in my imagination — the two groups that seem most vulnerable to me are the homeless and the incarcerated.

Last Monday night, as I was driving home from what would be last last medical maintenance appointment for who knows how long, I passed a homeless shelter. I was struck by a mass of people standing shoulder to shoulder at the entrance of the building. How are their needs being met? Do they have access to the news that suggests they keep six feet away from one another? Where can they shelter in place? How are our shelters providing food, supplies, and space for those who are in such desperate need while still protecting their staff and volunteers?

What must the inside of a jail or prison look like right now? I have to imagine that inmates are confined to their cells. Are they able to get outside at all? What kind of access do they have to health care? How terrified must they be?

Today an inmate in Louisiana became the first inside the American prison system to die after contracting the coronavirus; how quickly will it spread?

Some jurisdictions are releasing non-violent, aged, and chronically ill prisoners. Some cities are providing additional emergency housing for the homeless. However, I’m certain such undertakings are monumental and will result in further complications. Where do prisoners live when they are released? How will they support themselves? Who will follow the homeless and make sure that their needs are met?

How will we care for the most vulnerable?

What about those who are mentally ill, medically fragile, or ‘sheltering’ in place in abusive or neglectful homes?

How must they be suffering?

I’m sitting here in my house next to my dog, comfortable, well-fed, employed, and well. I have everything I need, and still I find myself struggling a bit — feeling crabby, wondering how long this will last, and disappointed that some of my plans have changed.

This pandemic has challenged us all — we’ve never lived this way before. We’ve never been so restricted, so isolated, so aware of one another and our struggling.

We’re communally groaning. And yet, we are not without hope. Not even close.

You don’t have to look far to be inspired.

Leaders and agencies are trying to meet the needs of the homeless, the imprisoned, and those who are in dangerous situations. (If you are able, financially support these efforts.)

Countless medical professionals are showing up to work everyday, donning personal protective equipment, and caring for the sick and dying with dedication, skill, and compassion. (Let’s all pray for their health, stamina, and encouragement.)

Teachers around the world are finding ways to connect with their students and provide learning opportunities in creative ways with whatever resources they have. (If you’ve got an awesome teacher in your life, send them an encouraging note or an e-gift card to Starbucks or Target.)

Grocery store employees are staying in the trenches — restocking shelves, disinfecting carts, adapting in the moment, and making sure we have everything we need. (Be sure to smile at them, thank them, and recognize their sacrifice.)

And what about those Shipt and Instacart drivers! It’s amazing that they’re willing to go to the stores for us, risking their health, so that we can stay put. (Make sure you tip them well!)

Companies are stepping up. The company I work for gave all employees 40 extra paid vacation hours and 80 extra paid sick hours. Verizon emailed me yesterday to tell me they’d given me an additional 15 GB of Personal Hotspot to help me stay connected. The founder of Zoom gave free access to educators and students. Other companies are stepping up to provide hand sanitizer, medical masks, ventilators, and the like. (Let’s shout out these companies and continue to patronize them!)

The United States government approved a relief package that will deliver cash payments to qualifying individuals and families, will provide extended unemployment benefits to displaced workers, and will support small and large businesses who have been impacted by virus-related restrictions and shut downs. (It wasn’t easy, but our leaders collaborated across party lines to make sure we are supported. Let’s urge them to continue working together!)

As we shelter in place, we are limited in how we can care — but we can support those who are on the front lines.

And we can pray.

Last Sunday, our pastor challenged our mid-sized congregation to a bold task — could we maintain a 24-hour prayer vigil for the duration of this crisis? He asked if individuals would sign up for 30-minute blocks of time around the clock to lift up our world, our nation, our state, our community, and each other in prayer. Since Sunday, March 22, every slot has been filled. Dozens are committed to calling on God to sustain us, protect us, heal us, and support us during this time.

And that’s just in our small church community. Undoubtedly, thousands are praying around the world — calling on God to have mercy, to provide for our needs, to heal the sick, to comfort the mourning, and to show us how to care for one another during this unprecedented crisis.

I wonder what that sounds like — thousands and thousands of voices calling out to God.

When I imagine us all praying together, I don’t feel alone or isolated or anxious — I feel connected, heard, and calm. I know He sees it all — me, the homeless, the imprisoned, the sick, the dying, the helpers — and that He holds us all in the palm of His hand.

if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:14

From Fear to Peace

If we weren’t already fretting and stewing — what with climate change, the presidential election, forest fires, and one report of sexual assault after the other — now we’ve got Covid-19, the corona virus. First it was just in China, then Italy and Iraq, but now it’s in Florida, New York, and even Indiana. Am I the only one who checks the map every day to see how far it has spread?

When I walk into work every morning, I see a sign taped to the door:

And, dutiful employee that I am, I take a pump on my way to the time clock.

The other morning, a potential new employee came to our suite. I heard the doorbell and went to let her in, “Hi, I’m Kristin,” I said as I offered her my hand. She looked a little startled, but she took my hand, and then, when we were done shaking, immediately spotted a bottle of hand sanitizer and took her pump.

I wasn’t offended. This bug is real, and all of us are being a little more diligent about washing our hands, disinfecting surfaces, and covering our coughs in the bends of our elbows. We are doing everything we can to prevent contamination and contagion.

However, Covid 19 isn’t the only thing that’s catching — a culture of fear has been infecting humanity, and it didn’t start with the corona virus. This high-alert culture has been gaining speed by way of the twenty-four hour news cycle that becomes increasingly theatrical what with it’s dramatic musical themes and foreboding voice overs. It’s been fueled by Twitter (not to mention Reddit) threads that provide a venue for instant confrontation between strangers who virtually shout accusations and point fingers. And it’s been stoked by public figures who use their platforms to raise anxiety rather than suggest solutions, provide reassurance, or take action.

And we are quickly becoming a society that scurries through life, checking our phones, looking over our shoulders, and distilling its opinions into 280-character statements that it frantically flings into the cosmos.

We are scared — scared of disease, scared of climate change, scared of war and fire and crime and each other.

Drunk on adrenaline and cortisol, we stumble through our days, checking our news feeds, judging (and berating) those we don’t agree with, and posting carefully curated photos to convince our friends (and ourselves) that we’re fine — really, we’re better than fine.

But then we lie awake at night worrying about if we have enough money to pay our bills, if our kids are alright, if we will indeed catch the corona virus, or if that old white dude will win the election. The worries keep cycling in our minds, and we can’t get back to sleep, so we open our phones and start scrolling to see if anything has changed. But guess what? It hasn’t, yet we keep scrolling and posting, thinking that we’re up anyway, so what will it hurt, not realizing, that we are merely adding more fuel to the fire.

When we finally drop the phone back on the night stand, we feel no better than when we picked it up — only more tired, more worried, and more unable to sleep.

How can we break this cycle? How do we protect ourselves from the pervasive fear epidemic that is infecting all of humanity?

Prayer.

It’s that simple.

You may think it’s corny. You may be thinking to yourself, “oh, geez, here she goes with that Christian stuff again,” but let me tell you, prayer is the only thing that calms my fears. The only thing.

I’ve tried logic: making claims, gathering evidence, and providing reasoning.

I’ve tried self-determination: see the last five years of my blog for anecdotal evidence of how that worked out.

I’ve tried blaming everyone around me for what’s wrong in the world — predators, politicians, and people who don’t think like I do. All that does is make me angry on top of scared.

The only effective way of dealing with fear, is surrender. And it’s so counter-intuitive that it takes me way too long to get there. I try all other strategies first every time. I come up with a good plan, I try to work the plan, and then when the plan doesn’t work out, I blame myself and everyone around me for the failure.

Then, weeping and wailing, I crawl into an empty room, open up my notebook or my laptop, and begin to write. Often I start with raging and railing vitriol — oh, the injustices!, then I move to grief — oh, the agony!, and then to the realization that my writing has become a prayer.

You see all this, don’t you? You see how we are pointing at one another and shouting accusations. You see how angry we are, how hurt, how afraid. And you are the One who can change this — You can stop a virus. You can restore the earth. You can make us whole. You can bring us together. And will you? Will you please? Will you stop this virus dead in its tracks? Will you show us how to do better at taking care of all you have created — plants, animals, and the people we love? Will you show us how to open our clenched fists? Will you fill us with love and understanding for one another? Will you show us how to to bring our fears to you?

And I find I’ve brought them to Him, and I’ve trusted that He will make a way when it seems there is no way. He will wipe the tears of those who grieve. He will sit beside me when I’m lying awake at night, and He will invite me to tell Him all that is on my mind. And He will listen. He will change my fear into compassion; He will motivate me to take action — to not let worry paralyze me, but to let it propel me.

When I pray, when I share my heart with the One who created me, fear floats away and peace descends.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Finding Space to Turn, a re-visit

Just over a month ago I wrote this post — I was noticing the impact of taking a brief intentional pause from my regularly hectic life to do a little reflecting. Little did I know that less than a month later, much of the world would make a hard stop to shelter in place. As I re-read this post, I am well aware of how much time I now have for introspection, for evaluation, and for turning.

Is your life as jam-packed as mine is? Do you find yourself rushing from task to task, commitment to commitment, often running late because you are trying to cram in one more thing?

Work, social engagements, exercise, caring for our homes, and myriad other commitments can leave us little room for contemplation, for feeling, or for processing all that happens within one of our very busy days.

Instead of pausing to do the most important work — to consider the ways that we live, the ways that we communicate, the beliefs we hold, or the opportunities we might be missing — we cycle through our days, getting up, going to work, and collapsing, day after day after day.

It can take an act of the will to get ourselves to step out of that cycle — to meet friends for dinner, to take a class, or to go on a long walk. Trapped in our crowded schedules, we find it difficult to see where we might find the space (and the energy) for such pursuits. So we continue in our patterns day after day after day. We eat the same foods, drive the same routes, and see the same people.

Sometimes, though, we do take action — we pause the cycle and get a glimpse at a better way.

Yesterday, I found myself sitting in a room with nine college-aged couples attending a workshop on relationships that my husband was leading. The day focused on three key topics: 1) the keys to healthy relationships, 2) what our personalities bring to our relationships, and 3) how to communicate more effectively about emotionally-charged topics.

I was most struck by the fact that these college students — who certainly have lives that are at least as busy as mine — willingly hit the pause button so that they could do the hard work of considering a new way. They engaged in conversations, took a personality inventory, and practiced a communication tool that showed them how to be vulnerable with one another. I watched as they turned to one another, heads leaning in, speaking their hearts and listening.

You might have guessed that my husband and I did all the activities, too. We paused to consider the marks of healthy relationships and which areas we might continue to improve in; we acknowledged how our personalities play off one another; and we practiced a communication strategy. And, you know what? We learned a few things. We may change some of our patterns because of our participation in this workshop.

Pausing for a few hours on a Saturday — breaking our usual routine — allowed us some space to take a look at our standard operating procedures and to find some areas for refinement.

Crowded lives don’t allow for much turning — when we are pressed in on every side, we don’t have much room to move, to turn. We continue our routines, finding little space within which to navigate. We feel frustrated: we grumble, we growl, we lash out. From that position, it can seem impossible to find space in which to make change.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of Lent, the day where we remember our mortality — we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. Lent is a time that many Christians pause from their busy-ness, their very crowded lives, to take a long look at how they are living — what are their priorities, what practices have become unproductive, what patterns have become destructive.

Some do this by “giving something up” — chocolate or television or technology — in an effort to open up some space for reflection. Some do this by adding something in — a daily devotion, a Scripture reading plan, or additional worship services — in an attempt to refocus their thoughts, to turn toward God.

You certainly don’t need Lent in order to shift a few aspects of your life to find space, but Lent can serve as an impetus for those of us who are stuck in our routines.

When we pause, when we find a way to step aside and make some space, we have the opportunity to reflect, to consider our options, and to turn — to try a different way.

When we entered Lent this year, we had no idea how hard a pause we would be making or how much space we would suddenly have — space to see ourselves, the ways we’ve been living our lives, and the people we choose to spend them with. If in all this sudden space you find yourself reeling, anxious, grumbly, or even euphoric, you might consider turning. I don’t know the turns that might impact your life, and maybe you don’t either, but perhaps there is a first turn that might inform those that follow.

In all this time and space you suddenly have, I invite you to return to prayer — a simple turning of the eyes to the One who always provides us with space to turn.

“Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.”

Psalm 116:7

Close Contact

Click the arrow to hear this post.

Last week I spent both of my posts on the positive impact that community can have on us — how choosing to spend time with others can provide an environment in which change can happen. When we feel loved and accepted, we can let down our guards, open our minds, and be open to new ways of thinking and being.

However, spending time in close proximity to others does come with risk. The moments we spend with others — our family, our community — are not often picture perfect; frequently they are characterized by friction, collision, and pain.

In fact, when I look back on the mental movie of my life, I can see the people I love most standing nearby as I have yelled, thrown things, and slammed doors; they’ve born witness as I’ve lain wounded, cried, and struggled to get back up. What impact must these moments have had on the bystanders? I am sure they left marks on the people I love most. And when I sit with that truth, my body aches.

But, here’s the thing: we can’t avoid leaving marks on the people we love the most.

We. are. broken.

All of us.

And when broken people come close to one another, we hurt one another.

Hurt people hurt people.

And all of us — from time to time — are hurting.

I remember one particularly difficult morning during the soldiering years when our whole family was headed to join a gathering of friends for a meal. Everyone else was ready and waiting, but I was upset about something — probably a larger internal issue — and I couldn’t get comfortable with the way I looked. I closed the bathroom door, tore everything out of the cabinets, and began violently cleaning and rearranging as I cried. I was hurting so badly, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how I could pull on a face that would not expose my pain for public viewing. My husband and my children — all in middle and high school by this time — could certainly hear me wailing and slamming as they watched the clock, knowing we were going to be late. When finally I emerged, tears wiped, make-up applied, and silent, they watched cautiously as I climbed in the car. We all rode quietly to the event, where I took a deep breath, got out of the car, and engaged appropriately (or at least more appropriately) with those who had gathered.

What impact did that make? How did I affect my children and my husband, all of whom were also hurting during this period, by processing in this way — behind closed doors — and then presenting a different face to those who were one step removed? What was I teaching them about pain? About emotion? About friendship? About community?

Of course many experience bigger hurts than my emotional melt down. When families and communities experience accidents, trauma, or disaster, all feel the blows and carry the resulting injuries. If one member of the family is injured in a car accident, everyone’s life gets bumped out of its rhythm — all those who care stop what they are doing, show up on the scene, rally to help, and adjust their schedules until further notice. When one person is the victim of a crime, all in the vicinity feel the violation — they experience fear, anger, grief, agony — sometimes for years after the fact. When someone in the family loses their house to fire or their livelihood is destroyed by hurricane, the impact can be felt by the children, the parents, and the whole community who might see the course of their lives redirected for decades in the wake of such devastation.

Not every hurt is remarkable, of course, some impacts go virtually unnoticed. Others are among the everyday bumps and bruises incurred with close contact.

The other morning, my husband of almost thirty years was driving me to work on one of the coldest mornings of the year. We were chatting matter-of-factly as he drove when something he said struck a cord and I felt defensive. I heard myself respond directly, and soon I knew my reply was sharper than I’d intended when I heard his tone change, too. Before we knew it, we were both feeling agitated and exchanging charged comments. We arrived at the office building where I work, said our goodbyes, and both tried to proceed into our days carrying the bumps and bruises from that conversation.

Now, because we’ve been married for almost thirty years and because we’ve done the heavy lifting that has taught us how to repair, he texted me within moments and I texted back. We both acknowledged our part in the conflict and agreed to table our discussion until later. We’d both felt the pain of contact, but we were willing to back up, reassess, and try a different approach that wouldn’t cause damage.

When you are willing, you can experience growth and change in your relationships with others. Over time, having experienced many collisions and close calls, you can learn how to navigate more safely, how to give each other a wide berth, how to forgive missteps and even outright hurtfulness.

In fact, if you are going to stay in relationships with people, you are going to have to learn how to consider one another, how to forgive one another, and how to give one another chance after chance after chance, because when we live in close proximity, we bump into each other, and sometimes it hurts.

It can be painful to think about the impact that our choices, patterns, and words have had on those closest to us. We want so badly to get it all right, but we never will. So, we trudge on, doing what we can.

We don’t have to — we don’t have to keep trying, keep trudging. We have options.

We could avoid this hurt altogether. We could choose to live as individuals — insulating ourselves from others so that we don’t hurt them and so that they don’t hurt us — but what would we lose in so doing?

We would lose the opportunity to love, to learn, to grow. We would lose the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven. We would lose the chance to laugh together, to share experiences, and to weep with one another.

This morning at church, right before I witnessed my friend and her husband give bread and wine to her aging father, right before I saw them, along with our pastor, envelop him in a hug and pray for him, I heard these words:

…what if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?

Where is there some “self” which has not been communally created? By cutting

back our attachments and commitments, the self shrinks rather than grows.”

Stanley Hauerwas

In my closest relationships I have experienced the deepest pain, and I have felt the fullest joy. Knowing I will continue to experience both the pain and the joy, I will not cut back my attachments; I will not shrink into myself. I will open my arms and embrace the brokenness that is inherent to all relationships, because our truest selves are indeed made from the materials of our communal life.

“Be kind to one another — tenderhearted, forgiving one another — even as God, for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.”

Ephesians 4:32

Transformational Spaces

On an average day in the middle of last summer a soon-to-be fifth grader walked into our learning center. As is common among first day students, his eyes were down, his defenses were up, and he was palpably not happy to find himself in this situation. His parent said, “See you in a little while,” and left him in our care. We did our standard welcome activities — tour of the center including our prize area where students choose what they will earn for all their hard work, presentation of gifts including a t-shirt and a personalized water cup, and introductions to staff and students. Then, we took him to his instruction area to begin, and he bolted — took off running. He was getting out of there.

We don’t know why. We don’t know what this guy had faced in school settings over the past five or more years. We don’t know what kind of comments he’d heard from instructors — you’re not trying hard enough, this is an easy one, just look at the letters — or what teasing he’d received from other students — why can’t you read, everybody can read, I just read Harry Potter for the third time — or what pressure he was under at home. We just know that his experiences up until we met him had made him leery of entering into proximity with one more group of people who would likely have opinions about him, want him to try stuff, and eventually be disappointed in him.

Not too long ago I was stuck on my couch believing that I would be grieving forever. I didn’t have the strength to venture into new spaces where I might face judgment, misunderstanding, or possibly more pain. If people invited me to do things, I often found excuses — I was busy, tired, or not feeling well. I didn’t have the wherewithal to try — to have conversations, to meet new people, to share my story. If I did happen to agree to go to an event, I often grumbled my whole way there. Why did we agree to come here? It’s going to be terrible. I’m not talking to anyone. How soon can we leave?

It’s not easy to shift from that posture.

When you are convinced that all attempts will lead to failure, you can make failure happen. When you believe that everyone will disappoint you, you can ensure that they will. And when you experience what you expect, your beliefs about how broken, how stuck, how hurt you truly are become more and more etched on the fabric of your soul.

I think that a person needs support to shift away from a posture like that.

When I was feeling that I’d lost all hope, friends showed up. They knew I was on that damn couch, and they persisted. They invited. They texted. They picked me up. They dropped me off. They prayed with me. They cried with me. They cheered every win. They carried me into situations that I was afraid of, and they didn’t leave me alone.

When my student was bent on bolting, his parent sat in our lobby — he needed a partner in his investment, a cheerleader. We were, of course, ready to cheer him every step of the way, but he didn’t yet trust us. We worked hard to build that trust — we celebrated every win, and we were patient in his silences. Eventually, he didn’t need a parent to stay, but he was still reluctant to fully commit. What if it really wouldn’t work and these people, “the experts at teaching reading,” couldn’t help him? What would that mean? If we couldn’t teach him, certainly he was without hope.

A little over two years ago, my husband suggested that we join a small group of people — members of our church — and meet with them once every other week to share journeys, study the Bible, and pray. We’ve been part of many groups like this during our marriage, so I complied. We’ve often found good friendships and community in such groups.

But a couple months later, our lives fell into chaos. If we’d known we were broken before, we suddenly found ourselves face down among all the shattered pieces, grieving uncontrollably. I no longer felt safe going to our small group. I was grumpy and resistant. I went, doing my best to hold it together, but sometimes my snarling gave me away. If our group noticed, I don’t remember them calling me out; they just kept showing up.

Things got tough for my student, too. It wasn’t easy to work our program, hour after hour, day after day. Sometimes his snarling gave him away, too. He refused to work, hurled insults, and often — feeling frustrated — gave up. My staff hung in there, encouraging him, believing for him — You’re going to get this! — when he couldn’t believe for himself.

This past week, I was working with him on his goal of adding the 1000 most common English words to his sight word base when he looked at me with exasperation. “I’m never going to finish this list,” he said.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “You’re so close! You’re gonna finish it, trust me!”

Two days later, he took a break from instruction to come find me, “Kristin, I have something to show you.” He handed me the sight word list so that I could see that he was finished. The whole room — students and teachers — stopped what we were doing to applaud him. His face, which for the past six months had often been fixed in a scowl, was beaming. It continued to beam as he read his fifth grade level stories while I stood watching in awe.

Later that day, he took another student aside — a student who was coincidentally experiencing his first day at our learning center — “I know it seems a little hard today,” he said, “but you’re going to do great, just like I did.”

On that same night, exhausted from my day, I came home, swallowed food, and reluctantly got in our car to go to our community group. I literally said “grumble, grumble” as we drove through the freezing February night, but guess what I found when I got there?

I found people who had been consistently showing up, grumbling or not, for over two years. I found them sharing snacks, laughing, listening, asking questions, and leaning in to hear one another’s stories.

We heard about hurts from the past, challenges of the present, and stories of answered prayer.

I saw tears, I heard joy, I found love.

Sometimes, just when we believe that all hope is lost — we’ll never learn to read, we’ll never be finished grieving — we find ourselves in a community that is committed to showing up, waiting us out, cheering us on, and believing for us that hope is not gone. When we find ourselves in these spaces, we should expect transformation because this is where it happens.

Find yourself a way to be part of these transformational spaces.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

I look just fine

Click the arrow to hear me read this post, or simply ignore and read on.

Friday afternoon, I sat at my desk grading some student work. I had untied the blanket scarf that I’d had wrapped around my neck and transitioned it from scarf to blanket so that I could wrap up as I worked. I was tired. And chilly.

Then, when my supervisor entered my office and shared some sadness with my coworker and I, I moved the blanket from my shoulders to up around my head, like a babuska. I huddled inside, rounded my shoulders, and audibly sighed.

Any stamina I had left after two forty-hour weeks was quickly dissipating. I didn’t have the bandwidth to take in sadness. I only had enough left to finish my tasks for the week so that I could stumble home.

Nevertheless, my coworkers and I paused for a minute and were sad together.

When the day was finally ended — most of the t’s crossed and most of the i’s dotted (I couldn’t be bothered to ensure all) — I tied the scarf around my neck, put on my coat, grabbed my backpack, and started the journey home.

I knew, as I walked out of the building, that I would spend most of the weekend in recovery, most of the next three days resting, hydrating, and giving my body time to heal.

I’m not sick. I am not injured. I have an autoimmune disease. And when your spoons are gone, they are gone, baby. After a couple long weeks — even a couple long hours — you can find yourself sitting at your desk wrapped up in a blanket, practically sucking your thumb.

I look just fine. You wouldn’t know that most of the past month I’ve been caring for a persistent case of iritis, which has involved — so far — two trips to the ophthalmologist and a course of steroid drops, OTC ibuprofen, and plenty of rest. You wouldn’t be able to see that for most of the week I’ve been trying to convince myself that I don’t have a urinary tract infection (sorry for the TMI) and that at this very moment, I’m contemplating a trip to the doctor to pee in a cup and find out if it is an infection or just inflammation.

I look just fine. In fact, I want to look just fine. I try very hard to look just fine.

Before I even walk out the door each morning, I do two HOURS of self care so that I can have the stamina to live my life — complete my job requirements, maintain my emotional health, and prevent myself from an autoimmune flare.

The alarm goes off at 5:30. I go to the bathroom and give the doggy the same opportunity. Then, I head to my home office, sit on the futon, read some Scripture, and write my three morning pages. Next I do yoga. (I am currently following a 30-day plan called “Home” by Yoga with Adriene.) By the time I’ve done all this, I am usually rushing to grab the clothes I’ve lain out the night before on my way to the shower. I wash with delicate soap and shampoo that won’t incite psoriasis, and I take time to apply carefully-selected moisturizers and cosmetics that do NOT annoy my skin. I dress in clothing that is comfortable and shoes that won’t irritate my feet. Finally, I make gluten-free oatmeal (yes, that’s a thing) and a cup of green tea, both of which I carry out the door with me so that I can make it to work by 8. I cherish this luxury of time to connect with God, connect with my mind, connect with my body, and prepare myself for the day.

In addition to my daily work, I also have other regular maintenance routines that I follow. I go to regular physical and dental check-ups like anyone else, but I do much more. Weekly, I see at least one member of my team — my chiropractor, my physical therapist, or my functional medicine practitioner. Once a month, I see a therapist, and twice a year I get an injection from a pain management specialist.

I love this routine. And, I have noticed, after having developed it over the past few years, that it makes me feel and look just fine — most of the time.

Even all this preventative practice can’t consistently keep autoimmune flares at bay.

It does a pretty good job, I must say. When I first started struggling with autoimmunity, I felt (and, quite frankly, looked) lousy most days. My eyes hurt, my skin was inflamed, my joints were stiff and sore, and I had zero stamina. I could barely keep my eyes open on my drive home after a typical day. I was convinced I’d landed in a new reality. I would never be able to hold a full-time job again. I would always be in pain. I would always feel (and look) miserable.

That was seven years ago this month.

Fortunately, the past seven years have led me to this place — a place that is full of hope. I have found a different way to have a career — where forty hour weeks are the exception not the rule, where I can occasionally sit at my desk wrapped in a blanket on a Friday afternoon, and where I can spend my weekend recovering instead of worrying about 75 AP essays that need to be scored and returned.

It would probably be a healthier rhythm even without autoimmune disease, but my dream was to teach in a high school or college where current systems don’t typically allow teachers to have a reasonable amount of work. High school and college English teachers work much more than 40 hours a week and have very little, if any, time for self-care or recovery — especially not teachers who have high expectations of themselves and their students and who are soldiering through their own personal crises.

Ironically, I was living my dream of speaking into the writing of people who were finding their way, when I realized I had lost my own way.

Autoimmunity has given me back my life — a better life than I could have imagined, even considering the frequent eye issues and other systemic flares. Because of the routines I have had to employ in order to function, I am much more aware of who I am and what my priorities are.

Because of autoimmunity, I look — and actually am — just fine.

I have spent most of the weekend recovering. I’ve stayed mostly in pajamas, wrapped in an afghan, eating foods that don’t contribute to inflammation, and using all the practices that restore me — Scripture, writing, yoga, crocheting, college basketball, and movies. I’m feeling a bit better. I may head to the doctor yet, but for right now, I’m going to crawl over to the couch, turn on a good flick, and continue to rest.

I’m sure I’ll look just fine in the morning.

My son, pay attention to what I say;

    turn your ear to my words…

 …for they are life to those who find them

    and health to one’s whole body.

Proverbs 4:20 and 22

Finding Common Ground

Click the link above to hear me read this post (pardon the early morning voice), or simply read on.

January 2020 is the start of a new year and a new decade. It is also a leap year, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, an election year.

It’s been pretty hard not to notice, what with the numerous debates, countless political ads, and the twenty-four hour news cycle.

And, for me, talk of the election and all things political has seeped into daily discourse, family gatherings (much to my mother’s dismay), and, most notably, my social media feeds.

I am happy to say that I have a pretty diverse online community; I’m quite sure it includes representatives from the far right, the moderate right, the moderate left, the far left, and people who claim to not care about politics at all. I don’t block people, even when their posts piss me off, because I want to hear divergent views. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, so I sometimes see, as I scroll, posts that encourage me, posts that confuse me, posts that irritate me, and posts that make me want to reply in a way that I would likely regret later.

Recently, I saw a post from a friend who said it was all the [insert specific political party]’s fault that [fill in current political issue] was happening. I saw that another friend of mine had replied, so I scrolled on.That friend said that, no, it was actually the [insert opposing party]’s fault because “look at all this evidence”. And so it ensued — a virtual exchange between representatives of two different parties. Now, I will say, that these two individuals, both intelligent and well-read, were able to isolate some key issues and continue their exchange beyond the typical name calling and finger-pointing, but neither granted any space to the other; no allowances were made. Both stood firm in their convictions, unwilling to budge.

When I saw this conversation, I wanted so badly to step in and ally myself with one of the speakers. I placed my cursor over the “write a comment” space, started to type, then, in a moment of sudden good judgment, hit the backspace button and closed the lid on my laptop. (I would like to here record this adult-like behavior since I don’t always make such sound-minded choices.)

I considered those two friends over the next few days. I am aware that they have known each other for decades. They have fond memories together, but they, at least in this post, had positioned themselves against each other and were unable to find common ground.

I wonder what would’ve happened if they had had the same conversation across the table from one another, over a sandwich and a coffee, looking into one another’s eyes. Would they would have been able to cede some of their firmly-held ground or been willing to step across the line into one another’s territory if only to look around?

It’s hard to know.

Another friend posted about a family gathering at Christmas where a [insert family member here] had come in spouting rhetoric from [insert political figure here], inciting an argument. Both parties continued to engage, firmly arguing their own positions, until one asked the other to leave. They couldn’t be in the same house together — on Christmas — because of their differing political views.

I don’t think these are isolated incidents. Scenes like these are becoming common. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into these opposing factions that position us one against the other, heels dug in, fingers pointing. And where do we picture it will end? Do any of us believe — truly believe — that we can shout “the other side” into submission, that we can prove our “rightness” and their “wrong-ness”? Do we think that one side will ever “win”?

Because guys, I’m not seeing anyone winning right now. I’m seeing a lot of anger and posturing, name-calling and accusing, and all kinds of refusal to find the common ground where we can come together.

And isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want to come together in the United States of America? Don’t we want to live in a “more perfect union”? Don’t we want to embody e pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one’?

Can we accomplish that through finger-pointing, name-calling, and accusation? Not in my experience. I picture that the longer we glare across the line, attaching blame to those on the other side, the further we get entrenched in our positions, the less willing we are to change.

And change doesn’t have to mean surrender — for anyone! If we could find, in the space between us, just enough room to set up a table, if we could invite one another to sit down, we just might have a beginning.

Of course, we’d have to shift our approach. Instead of trying to cram our own beliefs and opinions down the throats of the others, we’d have to agree to ask one another questions and listen to the responses.

For example, when one side says, “We need to do more to fight climate change,” we could respond by saying, “Oh? Tell me more about that. What kinds of ideas do you have?”

When someone says, “I don’t want anyone to take away my right to own a gun,” we could ask, “Really? Tell me why?”

If someone says, “Women have the right to do what they want with their bodies,” we can say, “I can see you are passionate about this. What’s your story?”

When another says, “We have to do what’s best for this country,” we can say, “What do you picture that looking like?”

What might happen? What kinds of conversations could we have if we just opened up some space and agreed to step inside of it, leaving our need to be right and our firmly held convictions behind?

Might we be able to see that we are indeed united on many issues — caring for our parents, providing for our children, reaching out to those in need? Could we be surprised to find that everyone on that other side doesn’t meet all our preconceived notions? Is it possible that in the space we find ourselves standing, we might see new possibilities that we’d never before imagined?

I’m just saying, it might be worth a try. Of course, we might decide that it feels safer to stay in our own yards, fists clenched, jaws set, unwilling to compromise the beliefs we hold so dear.

What were they again — those beliefs you hold so dear? What were the causes you were willing to fight with an old friend about? What issues kept you away from the Christmas gathering? What might you gain by clinging so tightly to them?

It could be a really long year if we stay in our trenches flinging grenades at one another.

Can’t we find enough common ground to stand together on? Can’t we reconcile with one another? Don’t we have enough grace for that?

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Romans 12:18

20/20 in 2020

Click the arrow if you’d prefer to listen as I read. Ignore if you’d prefer to read it yourself.

My husband and I have a long-running joke between us that he could paint the house purple and it would take me a few months to notice.

I don’t see everything.

Once, one of our children got multiple piercings on body parts that were not covered by clothing, and I didn’t realize it for a couple of weeks.

I miss details.

It’s not that my vision is poor. I mean it is (-7.75 for those who know what that means), but my glasses correct me to 20/20.

My vision is fine; I just don’t see stuff.

For example, we can drive down the same street every Saturday for five years in a row and one day I will ask my husband, “Is that a new gas station?” He’ll say, “No, it’s always been there.” Or, he’ll say, “Doesn’t the road feel great now that they’ve resurfaced it?” and I’ll say, “They resurfaced it?”

Now, I might be able to blame a little of this on the cell phone. I mean, my husband often drives, and I’m often checking texts, getting navigation, or responding to messages, so I might miss some things because I’ve got my face in the screen, but guys, the piercing incident happened way before iPhones. I barely even knew where my phone was back then.

The fact that I miss so much probably has more to do with my laser focus on the mission — a last vestige of the soldiering life.

[If you are new to my blog and don’t know what I mean by ‘soldiering’, you can get a quick snapshot by clicking here. Or you can type ‘soldiering’ into the search bar at the top of the page.]

One important skill of soldiering is to be able to tune out distractions so that you can focus on the mission. The brain can’t attend to every stimulus it is exposed to all at once, so a soldier learns to zoom in. She can see an enemy approaching at a great distance while filtering out a whining dog at her feet. She can detect an approaching storm that will necessitate a tactical shift, while overlooking the construction crew working on the highway she’s driving on. Her mission is survival, so she prioritizes necessity and imminent threat.

For much of a decade, during my soldiering season, I was laser-focused on survival. I saw what was necessary for that mission — feeding my family, putting clothes on their backs, and getting them to doctors, therapists, sporting events, and concerts. I also attended to my students– planning their lessons, grading their papers, and writing their college recommendations. If my child or my student brought an issue to me — put it right in front of me — I saw it as part of the mission. I would work to solve, soothe, or fix whatever was broken and then get back to whatever I was working on.

I saw little in my periphery, little that wasn’t pointed out, little that lay hidden beneath the surface.

Now, I’m obviously not a trained soldier; I was just pretending to know what I was doing as I marched through some very difficult years. In the face of uncertainty and possible harm, I strapped on my backpack and started kicking butts and taking names. I turned my eyes to problems and crises in an attempt to control my surroundings, but I missed so much — some of the greatest threats to our family and their well-being. An untrained soldier might manage to survive, but she’s likely to mess up all kinds of missions along the way.

In these last five years, during my recovery from soldiering, I have dropped my weapons, taken off my backpack, and slowed my pace, but I’m still trying to adjust my vision. I still tend to scan for danger or obstacles rather than giving a more realistic assessment to a situation.

Just last week, I met a new student with some significant learning challenges. Even after decades of working with students with all kinds of learning profiles, I was intimidated. He’s got some real barriers to learning and all I could see were the obstacles we would have to overcome so that we could complete the learning tasks in front of us. I was looking at those challenges, and my anxiety started to rise. How would I be able to work with this student during the last hour of my day when I was already fatigued and facing challenges of my own?

My focus on potential problems was for nothing. Not long into our session this teenager and I were laughing, learning, and listening to one another! What I had seen as potential disaster ended up being a very successful hour of instruction.

In my attempts to survive by hyper-focusing on potential dangers, I’ve missed a lot, but shift is happening. I’m beginning to see more clearly. I’m beginning to understand that the period of uncertainty and crisis is over — my strategy of scanning for danger is no longer necessary.

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.

I’m praying for sight, but I’m also asking for vision. I’m longing to see what’s right in front of me while also being able to dream ahead. I long to see clearly enough where we’re going so that I follow the path that will get us there.

And in 2020, I want to understand that there is really just a more connected here. It’s a here where I see the pain of the person in front of me, even when she is doing her best to hide it, where I hear insecurity when I’m presented with bravado, and where I acknowledge the actual fragility of the bravest of soldiers.

May 2020 be the year that we clearly see one another and acknowledge that we’re all trying real hard to do the best that we can.

Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

Mark 8:25

Honor One Another

Right now, people you know and people I know — people we see every day — are feeling a bit desperate. They’ve been scrolling through social media, and they’ve seen picture-perfect families, lit-up Christmas trees, and December graduations that have shown them how far they are from measuring up. They’ve seen group poses and party pics that have reminded them of their own disconnectedness.

They feel defeated, deflated, and discouraged.

Many in our culture — the one that promotes wealth, success, status, and achievement — have compared themselves to a curated social media standard or to the people they see at school or at work — the polished public facade of put-togetherness — and have found themselves lacking.

And this sense of inferiority has implications.

The National Institute of Health reports that 19 percent of the US population suffers from anxiety and over seven percent have suffered from a major depressive episode in the last year.

On an average day in the United States, 129 people commit suicide.

This year alone, 409 Americans have committed mass shootings, injuring 1,466 and killing 441.

Why? Why are people picking up weapons and intentionally seeking to hurt others? Why do so many try and succeed in ending their own lives? Why are such high numbers depressed and anxious?

Of course the answers to these questions are complex, but could it be, at least in part, that people simply don’t know their own worth? Their own inherent value?

With all of our emphasis on achievement, success, and wealth, have we lost the ability to see the inherent value of each person — the implicit value that is separate from our accomplishments, our status, and our ability to present a flawless front to the world? Are we unable to find that value in one another and in ourselves?

Our pastor, Gabe Kasper, in his recent series on the Culture of Christmas spent an entire Sunday on how we, as a community, can create a culture of honor in which we recognize, value, and honor each person — where we see the implicit value in each individual.

Is this possible? Can we create (or re-create) such a culture in a community that is made up of people like me? I struggle to get my focus off my self and my to-do list for long enough to even see the people around me, let alone honor them!

I was in the mall the other day, and I was on a mission. Bent on hitting my step goal while finding two specific Christmas gifts, I put in my earbuds and got to it. I stepped my steps and found my gifts. Mission accomplished. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that other than the salesperson who helped me, I didn’t remember one single face from that trip to the mall. Although it’s mid-December and the mall was crowded with people, I was so totally focused on finding my gifts and getting in my steps that I didn’t notice one other person. I didn’t give honor to anyone.

Honor, Pastor Gabe said, is the recognition of the value, contribution, and importance of others; it recognizes their implicit value.

What does that look like?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like me, fully engrossed in the podcast playing in my ears, motoring through the masses on my seek-and-find mission.

No. When I picture honoring someone — truly seeing their inherent value — I imagine myself figuratively cupping their face in my hands, looking straight in their eyes, and seeing, with wonder, what their parents saw in them on the day they were born. In honoring them, I acknowledge the miracle that despite all odds — despite illness, dysfunction, calamity, neglect, and abuse; despite chance and hazards and accidents and trauma– a human being has been created cell by cell, has grown to its current state, and has survived. Whether or not the being whose face I am beholding has accomplished anything in life beyond that survival, he or she is a miracle — a child of God, someone’s hope and dream, and a life worth acknowledging, an existence worth honoring.

And honoring the inherent value of all people means I’m holding the faces of a lot of people who don’t look like me, don’t agree with me, don’t want to listen to me, and might even annoy me.

Over the last couple of weeks, perhaps nudged along by Pastor Gabe’s message, I’ve attempted honoring others by taking one small action — yielding the right of way. Instead of speeding up to get in front of others, I’m trying to remember to let them go in front of me. (It’s a baby step; I know.) I’m driving into parking lots slowly, allowing others plenty of space to find their spot as I’m staying out of their way. I’m walking through stores (other than my recent journey to the mall) with the intention of not cutting anyone off, of anticipating where others are going, and of allowing them to step in front of me. I’m trying to show that I recognize that people have inherent value.

It’s a very small action. To be fair, I can’t actually walk up to people, take their faces in my hands and say, “Wow! You are quite a miracle!” I’m pretty sure that would be counterproductive. However, I can look the sales clerk in the eye, smile, and thank her for bagging my items. I can turn to my coworker when she speaks to me and listen to her instead of continuing to fill out the document I’m working on. I can acknowledge that my student is ticked off because he has to do two hours of instruction with me after he’s already been in school all day and honor the legitimacy of that feeling. I can walk through the mall a little less intensely, seeing the other people in my path, smiling, nodding, allowing them to step in front of me, and noticing their humanity, their worth, their inherent value.

It might mean I might have to slow my roll, overlook some grinchiness, and give up my right to have everything in life go exactly according to plan, and it might mean I get to a few places a little late, but what difference will it make?

Will my small changes stop gun violence? Will they put an end to depression, anxiety, and suicide? Will my small attempts to make eye contact, to listen, and to acknowledge the worth of others cause significant cultural change?

I hardly think the actions of one middle-aged woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan can shift a whole culture, but they might cause an ever-so-minute shift. If I notice one person’s value and they then notice another person’s value, perhaps together, we might create enough space in which a few more people can live and breathe, where they might begin to have hope, where they might discover a reason to keep living.

I’ve been accused of being too hopeful, too idealistic, too pie-in-the-sky. But guys, I’ve been changed by people who noticed me, who looked in my eyes, and who acknowledged my inherent worth.

Small actions can yield huge results.

Is it possible that as we pause to acknowledge the value in the lives around us that we might become like mirrors in which people begin to see their own inherent worth and that we might, in turn, more fully understand the value of ourselves?

Is it worth a try?

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Romans 12:10

Warning Flags!

Prefer to listen? Click the arrow above.

I got up early one day this week and headed into work with an extra spring in my step. I was looking forward to some concentrated time to attend to several tasks that needed to be completed by the end of the week and was expecting about two hours of almost uninterrupted time to focus on them. I was charged up to be super productive, and I drove to work practically whistling “Hi ho, Hi ho!”

I parked my car, walked into the building, and ascended two flights of stairs, excited to get right at my work. However, when I walked into our office and saw our office assistant on the phone, I had an uneasy feeling. A 7:55am phone call could mean one of two things: 1) a student was cancelling instruction, or 2) a staff member was calling in late or sick.

I quickly learned that it was the second option, and I would need to cover a session with a student, sacrificing one of my coveted hours of uninterrupted work.

My inspiration and positive attitude quickly turned to frustration and irritation. I mentally stomped through the center gathering materials, grumbling under my breath about how I would be behind for the rest of the day.

I was annoyed, and it was going to take real work to shift my attitude.

Now, I love working with students, but this was not the morning I had expected. The plan that had me whistling and practically skipping into work had been altered, and my psyche was flung from enthusiasm to disappointment. I had to take action so that I could still give my student — and myself — a quality hour of instruction.

With set jaw, I mentally talked myself down — certainly I can recover from one lost hour. I could ask our office assistant to reschedule an appointment, I thought, logging into my computer. I could still get everything done. My blood pressure was coming down; it’ll be ok, I thought. Then, I settled in with my student.

By the time we were finished with our surprisingly fun and effective session, I had mentally realigned my tasks and developed a new set of expectations for how the rest of my morning would go.

And then, you guessed it, my office manager informed me that after my meeting, I would have to take another student hour and sacrifice my newly adapted plan.

I bet you are thinking that at the second change in plans, I much more easily adapted.

Nope.

I am quite sure my face said it all, “I am not happy. This is not how I pictured my day going.” I glowered and muttered a few discontented comments as I looked at my calendar and my list of tasks. I was definitely and obviously frustrated.

Once again, I talked myself down: Ok, Ok, shift this here, shift that there. It’ll be fine. Come on; you’re a professional. I completed a couple of tasks and then moved into the meeting. I celebrated with a parent who shared some great news, I fully enjoyed my second hour of instruction, and I did, actually, manage to once again redistribute my work and make another plan for its completion before the end of the week.

Everything I was hoping to get done, would get done; it just wouldn’t happen in the way that I had expected.

So here’s the question: why did these small interruptions make me so upset? Why couldn’t I more easily shift gears? Why did I get emotional at each transition?

I retold this saga to my husband when I got home that day, still kind of simmering emotionally. “Why,” I asked him, “why did this make me so upset? I hate feeling this way! I want to be a team player, to go with the flow, to step in and help. Why is it so hard for me to shift gears?”

He, the therapist, said, “That’s your flag. When you respond to something in a way that seems off, you need to ask yourself why.”

As we talked some more, we unearthed a couple of things that were bothering me — some stressors that I hadn’t been realizing were stressors– and I made a plan to address them.

By the next day I was able to communicate some of those frustrations with the people who had the ability to do something about them. This allowed me to stop burying my emotions and, rather, express them appropriately.

I am feeling stretched thin. I am disappointed by this reality. I don’t feel heard.

When I stated my grievances, I was told, “Please be sure to share these things when they come up; don’t carry them around for so long.” But, you know what? I didn’t know how much I was bothered until I started paying attention to the flags.

When my husband said, “That’s your flag,” several images popped up in my mind of other times recently when my emotions flipped like a switch as a result of seemingly insignificant circumstances. I thought to myself, I’ve been overreacting to small things for quite a few weeks. I guess I have been more bothered than I was aware.

This has, of course, happened throughout my life. I’ve snapped at an inconvenience, I’ve growled at a surprise turn of events, and I’ve stomped and slammed when the people in my life didn’t behave in the way that I expected them to. However, rather than noticing these behaviors as flags, I often just chided myself and felt guilty for reacting so emotionally.

I saw myself as too emotional — I cried too much, laughed too loud, and had big emotional responses to almost everything. But I’ve come to see my emotions as a gift — they reveal what’s going on inside of me when I am unaware, and they stand by the side of the road, waving bright red flags so that I’ll stop and take notice. They draw my attention to internal hurts and frustrations so that I will do the work that allows me to be present for others.

Paying attention to the flags this week helped me unearth the real issues. I was never upset that a coworker called in or that I needed to work with a student when I wasn’t planning on it. I was upset for legitimate reasons that had nothing to do with the current situation. I just wasn’t allowing myself to admit it.

Now that I’ve acknowledged some underlying stressors and have some strategies for managing them, I’m hoping to have a more balanced response to the unexpected changes that will undoubtedly arise this week. Maybe when my plans get rearranged, I’ll be able to roll with the punches, unfazed.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:6