Disruption and Transformation

My oldest granddaughter is starting kindergarten this week, and as we were celebrating this milestone over the weekend, I started thinking about the year I started kindergarten. I couldn’t wait to go to school, to meet new friends, to sit at a desk, and to raise my hand to speak (ok, let’s be honest, I never fully mastered that part).

Just as my mother and father had done when they were five, I got up early in the morning, ate my breakfast, brushed my teeth, and walked down the street to my neighborhood elementary school, where I greeted my teacher, Mrs. Cole (bless her heart), and met those who would become some of my lifelong friends.

From that point on, most of the years of my life, I have looked forward to the start of school. I’ve bought new pencils and pens, picked out the coolest lunchbox I could find, and selected my first day of school outfit days in advance. I went to school from 8am to 3pm Monday through Friday until I went off to college, where I continued on much the same calendar. I took breaks at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break, and then enjoyed a long summer before I started the cycle all over again.

You could probably say the same, because we’ve been doing school this way since time immemorial.

Much has come to depend on this system. Parents count on the fact that their kids are going to school: it provides a place for kids to go while parents are at work, one or even two meals a day, and even transportation to and from school.

Schools provide social, cultural, and practical education. It’s in school that kids learn to share and take their turn, to appreciate music and the arts, and to follow processes like writing proposals and submitting applications. Our society depends on schools to prepare children to become members of society. It has for centuries by now.

And, for the most part, it’s been doing it the same way for all those years. Children have been starting kindergarten at age five since the 1870s (see a history of kindergarten here). Since long before that time, children across the country have gone to school Monday through Friday, from 8 to 3, or in many cases much longer with breakfast or before care tacked on early and sports, extracurriculars, or after care added at the end of the day.

Teachers arrive early and stay late, often working 10 or more hours a day, day after day, month after month, nine months out of the year. Year after year after year.

Until a pandemic arrives and disrupts that system.

Disruptions can freak us out — We panic, we stress, we yell at our friends and neighbors, we point fingers, and we demand that things go back to normal.

However, sometimes disruption can show us a better way.

If you’ve been following my blog since its inception, you will know that it was born out of disruption. After years and years of celebrating the start of the school year, a disruption pulled me out of that rhythm. Chronic illness, and the acute nature of its beginnings, forced me into quarantine — not a literal quarantine, but it might as well have been, because I was no longer able to be in the classroom, to rub elbows with my community, or to share space and oxygen with the students and colleagues that I had loved so deeply.

And it freaked me out. I cried. I grieved. I yelled at my family and friends. I spent long days and weeks on my bed wishing that things would go back to normal, but the disruption showed me a better way.

When I was forced out of the cycle that had felt like home for over 40 years, I had to take a long look at the time that was available to me, the resources I had at my disposal, the abilities I still had, and the goals I was trying to achieve. How, I wondered, could I still be involved in education with my new limitations?

And isn’t that where we are now? We’ve been forced out of a cycle that has provided structure for our society for well over two hundred years. We are freaking out. We’ve been freaking out. Parents who’ve been stuck at home trying to work while parenting their children and attending to their educational needs, are rightfully overwhelmed. They have not been prepared for this. They’ve been prepared, as all of us have, to send our kids to school. Now some, of course, have chosen to prepare themselves to school their children at home — and these folks right now, are certainly at an advantage. The rest of the country — and much of the world — has been thrown off balance by this curve ball.

And we’re reeling — when will we go back to normal?

Some are pressing the issue of going back to normal right this very minute, “The kids need to be in school!” And I get it. If we go back to school, we think, everything will feel right again. Wouldn’t it be great to be packing lunches, waving to our kids as they get on their busses, going to football games on Friday night, and bending over the kitchen table every night trying to complete school projects (ok, maybe not that one)?

But what if, what if, this disruption could show us a better way. What if we took a long look at the time and the spaces that are available to us, the resources we have at our disposal, the abilities we still have, and the goals we are trying to achieve? How can we still be involved in education with our current limitations?

Some are figuring this out right now, folks. Never before have students of all income levels had access to personal electronic devices, but community members are stepping up, donating, and making sure that all of our kids have a laptop or tablet they can work from. Never before has there been such a global push for equity in terms of Internet technology, but right now, many teachers are receiving training on Google Classroom, Zoom, and other methods of digitizing their content and delivering materials to students who will not be physically with them. Likewise, students from all kinds of backgrounds, will begin to navigate digital spaces like they never have before.

Could this be a leveling of one end of the playing field?

What if educators, who find themselves sitting around the scrap heap of their disrupted plans and schedules, were right now thinking and preparing to do things a different way? What if, in fact, they’ve been begging for this opportunity for years? What if they have been longing for more professional development, more support from their communities, and more resources, and this disruption was the catalyst for change?

You might think I sound like Pollyanna, unless you remember that just six years ago, I walked out of a classroom, convinced that I’d never go back, that I spent that summer and much of the fall in bed with pain and inflammation or in the bathroom throwing up, and that the last six years have been a slow healing and restructuring of my life, and that in that healing and restructuring I’ve discovered new strengths, new possibilities, new ways of thinking, and a new sense of hope.

I’m living proof that disruption can been an opportunity for restoration, rebirth, and ingenuity.

If you are so stressed by this disruption right now and can’t see a way that the coming days will work, I get that. If you are lying on your bed in pain, or shaking your fist in rage, I feel that. If you are hungry for hope, for change, for rebirth, I’m just saying, believe that it can happen.

I’m believing for you right now. Many of you have believed for me over the last six years, even when I didn’t believe for myself.

Transformation often comes in the midst of hopelessness — watch for it. I know I am.

How can I do anything else when I’m looking at this 5 year old beauty curiously examining wildflowers on a Sunday afternoon, knowing that she’s heading to kindergarten on Tuesday.

The whole world is ahead of her, and I have to be full of hope.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Romans 15:13

Ready, Changing Course, pt. 3

During the twelve weeks that I was working remotely, my husband and I developed some rhythms to break up the monotony. We walked a mile or so every day at lunch time to get away from our desks, we walked again at the end of the day to get our mail and talk about the events of our day, and we tuned in each night to watch the national and local news.

We’ve watched the numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to rise. We’ve watched reports of businesses closing, of economic stress, of overcrowded hospitals. For weeks, we caught the daily White House Task Force briefings, and then, when the eyes of the nation turned to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, our eyes turned, too. When we heard the nationwide sound of wailing and protest for the sake of Black lives, we leaned in to listen.

The sound was not new to us. We’d been aware of systemic racial injustice for quite some time — not because we heard it on the national news, but because the trajectory of our lives has given us relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines and we have seen the impact of school inequity, racial profiling in policing, red-lining in real estate, inequities in access to health care and quality food, and racist practices in institutional hiring. We haven’t done much about it, if I am going to be honest, other than bear witness and believe that these systems exist, but we have seen the impact on people that we know and care about.

So when thousands across the country took to the streets carrying signs emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Arrest Brionna’s Killers, we were not horrified. We were not surprised. We were looking for ways to support, ways to ally, ways to join their voices. How could we do otherwise? How can we sit quietly watching repeated senseless acts of violence upon people of color, knowing that these blatant killings and attacks are a symptom of a much more insidious disease. Racism in our country runs deep — it has surreptitiously found its ways into our thought lives as all ideologies do, so that even when we believe ourselves to be free of racism, we make judgements about others because of their language, their skin color, their clothing choices, and their hairstyles. We use people of color as it benefits us (for sports, for entertainment, and to prove ourselves to be non-racist), but we rarely come to their defense or speak up on their behalf.

So right now, when Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, specifically because of the impact of inadequate access to healthcare, the wealth and educational gaps that keep people of color in service industries and on the front line, and the pre-existing conditions that disproportionately pervade these communities due to centuries old inequities, when even now people of color have to contend with incidents of injustice like the George Floyd killing, we must be moved to action.

So when my husband and I were standing in the kitchen one night in the middle of the stay at home order and he said, “Are you happy doing what you are doing right now?” I reflexively responded that what I really wanted was to be in a school where I could be part of the dialogue during this time that has potential for unprecedented transformation in the lives of communities of color. I felt ready. After a long journey back to health, I felt we were facing the moment I had been preparing for.

He said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

I said, “Really? Even if it means I have to drive to Detroit?”

“Don’t be bound by geography. Apply broadly, and we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.”

Oh. My. Word. You’d have thought he had given me the keys to any car I wanted to drive off the lot! If he thought I was ready, then I knew I actually was ready!

I started combing Indeed and district websites like never before. I applied to positions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Detroit metro area, and beyond. And though I’d been doing this to some degree for years, this time was different. Within a couple days of submitting applications early in the morning, on my lunch hour, and after work, I started getting phone calls and emails.

I was different. I felt different — healthy, strong, and impassioned like never before. While I had believed for quite some time that my career was over, I was beginning to believe that I might just have another round in me. Not only that, the landscape was different. Due to Covid-19, many teachers have been choosing to leave the profession, take a sabbatical, or move into a different sector — away from classrooms, particularly classrooms in hot zones like Detroit. While before I may have been passed over because my Master’s degree and years of experience put me a little higher on the salary schedule, suddenly I was a prime candidate. While many teachers were ill-equipped to manage the unavoidable transition from in-person to online learning, I have been using online platforms to work with students for the last several years!

As the interviews started, I could hear the skepticism in the voices of those questioning me. What is your experience with urban schools? Why are you interested in this position? How would you build classroom culture among students who are 99% Black? 99% of whom receive free or reduced lunch?

I could hear the subtext, “I can see, even over this video interview, that you are a middle aged white woman. Are you sure you are up to this? Do you know what you are getting into?” But guess what, kids, I’ve heard these questions before, and I was ready for them.

What I wasn’t ready for was learning that many of the schools I was applying to had been operating with long-term substitute teachers in core subject areas, because they could not find highly qualified teachers and they had to fill slots. I wasn’t ready to learn that many of the students in these schools did not have devices or internet in their homes when the stay-at-home order began. I wasn’t prepared to realize that because 5,000 people had died in Detroit and a disproportionate number of them were Black, chances are high that the students in these schools have experienced loss above and beyond the loss of their routine, the daily contact with teachers and friends, and life as we once knew it. They’ve likely lost people they love.

However, I was excited to learn that several of the agencies I was interviewing with were working to meet the needs of these students. They were delivering devices and personal hot spots — teachers and administrators getting in their own vehicles and driving to student residences across the Detroit metro. Not only that, all of the schools I interviewed with were still providing food to families — five days a week. One school was providing food not only to their own students’ families, but to anyone in the community who pulled into the parking lot to receive it. They were also working hard to secure more devices for the coming school year and making plans (state-mandated) for how to return to school fully in-person, fully online, and a hybrid option that would allow families to choose.

I met dedicated educators who care about kids — inner city kids, kids of color, kids who matter.

And one of these schools made me an offer.

And then another one did.

And I still had my position at Lindamood-Bell.

I had a decision to make, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

But I was ready. More on that next time.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5

Coronavirus Diary 15: Wearing a Mask

I’ve been back in the office for two weeks now. I’d been working from my office in our little house by the river for almost three months when our company determined that we should be back in our physical space, so I packed up all my materials — laptop, auxiliary screen, student files, and other materials, and lugged them to my car, drove them across town, hauled them up two flights of stairs, and started to acclimate.

The first couple of days were especially stressful. I don’t know if it was the daily screening paperwork that I had to fill out every morning, the taking of my temperature, the putting away of all those materials (which I still haven’t finished), the spontaneously self-generating list of regular tasks that didn’t pause for a second as I learned all the new protocols, or the fact that I now have to wear a mask.

Of course I’ve been wearing a mask for months. It started in the early days when the only time I left our home was to go to the grocery store. I made a few masks following a simple pattern and using some leftover fabric I had here at home. Our church was making them for a local hospital, and since I have a sewing machine and we suddenly had lots of time on our hands, I began to mass produce them along with a small group of women.

On my weekly treks out, I not only donned a mask, but I wore latex gloves. I carefully procured my groceries, following arrows on the floor and being careful to keep six feet away from others. Back in my car, I would remove the mask and gloves, sanitize my hands, and then drive home where my husband would receive and wash all the items I purchased while I stripped and headed straight to the shower. In fact, we’ve kept this routine all these months. We’ve developed quite a system.

We’ve adopted these behaviors to stay safe — to keep ourselves from getting sick.

In those early days, I probably wore the mask for a grand total of 3-5 hours per week, but now that I’m back in the office, I am supposed to wear it for 8 hours a day!

I get it. Mask wearing is very important. The data shows us that our chances of spreading or contracting Covid-19 are greatly reduced by social distancing and wearing a mask.

So, I’m wearing one, but let me just say that it is challenging!

Probably the biggest reason I find face mask wearing challenging at work is that it covers my face and most of my facial expressions. I am an educator, and right now I see most of my students online. Working with students virtually has its own challenges, not least of which is the ability to communicate clearly. Since all the students can see of me is from the torso up, I am continually checking to be sure that I am centered on the screen, that my student can hear me clearly, and that I am allowing appropriate time to hear his or her response. I rely heavily on facial expression and hand gestures such as “thumbs up” and “high five” to communicate encouragement. Now that I am in the center and required to wear a mask, I lose my smile and the student’s ability to use the visual support of watching my mouth to understand what I am saying. (You’d be surprised how much we rely on this.)

My employer has done a pretty decent job of separating staff members from one another. I am sharing a room with one coworker, but we have a divider between our work spaces and we give each other a wide berth when we are coming and going. Additionally, we each wear a mask for most of the day. However, we have both determined that we will remove our masks when working with our most severe/youngest students for whom the mask seems a distraction or hindrance to instruction.

I am fine with this because my coworker and I have a strong relationship and we are both communicating about the ways in which we are continuing to limit our exposure to others outside of work — avoiding social gatherings, and wearing our masks when in public spaces such as grocery stores, doctor appointments and the like. We trust one another to act responsibly and out of concern for one another, so we feel comfortable several times a day removing our masks to work with these students.

I also dash outside once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and over my lunch hour to take off the mask and breathe some fresh air because I am just tired of wearing it! It fogs up my glasses, makes me feel hot, and smashes my hairstyle.

Wearing a face mask is annoying, but I am going to keep wearing one.

Why? Because in my county 37 new cases were reported yesterday. Michigan’s seven-day average is 508. The United States’ rate of infection and cumulative death count still far outpaces any country, even adjusted for population, and though people are still arguing about whether Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who are asymptomatic (or pre-symptomatic), each day we learn of more people who were infected because they gathered in large groups and chose not to wear masks.

Over 135,000 people have died in United States in the last few months, and we have been given a few simple instructions for diminishing further spread and death: 1) We should wash our hands, 2) we should stay away from people, and 3) we should wear a mask.

It’s really not a big ask.

Is it annoying? Yes.

Would I prefer not to? Yes.

But am I willing to take one for the team and do my best to stop the further spread of the coronavirus while thousands of medical staff are doing their best to keep people alive while wearing not only a mask, but often a shield, and all manner of PPE? while thousands of researchers, clad in hazmat suits, are working around the clock to find a vaccine, a treatment, a cure? Yes.

I’m willing to be a little annoyed — a little uncomfortable — for the sake of keeping myself and others safe. And what if wearing a mask turns out to be ineffective? I won’t mind, because at the very least, my choice to wear a mask signals to those around me that I am willing to care for them, to keep any possible infection to myself, and to join a united effort against this pandemic.

I think that’s worth something.

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

Romans 12:18

Coronavirus Diary #13: Vantage Point

When I was teaching high school composition, I used to have my students watch the movie Vantage Point (available on Amazon or YouTube), which tells the story of an assassination attempt on the US President as seen from the various vantage points of different characters. The goal of watching this film, which I assigned over Christmas break before the start of the semester, was to get my students thinking about point of view and the reliability of narration. I wanted them to see that depending on where you are standing, the story might look very different.

And isn’t that true right now?

I spoke to my mother this week. She lives in small town Michigan, very far removed from the cities where Covid-19 has run most rampantly. Her county has had 82 total cases and 13 deaths. She is unfamiliar with the impact of systemic racism; her county is 92% white and she has no reason to believe that systemic racism has impacted the few people of color that she knows. Because it’s tucked back from the highway running through town, she rarely considers the Level IV correctional facility which houses over 1000 inmates, most of whom are likely people of color. From her vantage point, not much in life has changed. She feels free to go out of her house to shop in the midst of a global pandemic, even if she does have leukemia and is 78 years old. She’s wearing a mask, after all, well, except for that one time when she went to a graduation open house when she didn’t wear a mask — because, well, nobody was.

My daughter called yesterday. She lives on The Common in Boston, a city where Covid has infected over 13,000 people and claimed the lives of over 900. She woke up yesterday to the sound of police putting up barricades on the sidewalk outside her window. As the day progressed, Black Lives Matter protestors assembled behind the barricades on one side of the street; Blue Lives Matter protestors with the support of white supremacists gathered on the other. In the middle of these two groups police officers in riot gear patrolled back and forth. She called because she was riled up. She had left her building through the back entrance to protect herself from a potential clash of protestors, wearing a mask to protect herself from Covid. From her vantage point, life is full of danger and opportunity. She sees her position of privilege and feels compelled to speak up, speak out, and engage in a dialogue to impact change. She grew up mostly in spaces occupied by people of diverse backgrounds. Her partner is a person of color. She belongs to a church that is made up of people from many nations, many backgrounds, many socioeconomic levels. She works for a government agency that is committed to equity for all citizens of Massachusetts. She is hyper-aware of the realities around her.

Over the past week, I have been preparing to return to the office where I was working before I started to quarantine at the end of March. My company has done extensive work to prepare our environment to meet the requirements of re-entry — creating social distance, requiring and providing masks, ensuring that extra cleaning will be done, and limiting the number of students who will be in the center at any given time. The parents of some of our students really want them to be able to come into the center — they believe instruction will be more effective there. From their vantage point, opening our center is a great idea. However, many of the staff, who have been working remotely for the last three months, sheltering in place, limiting their exposure to others, and watching the trends of communities who have opened ahead of us, do not want to go back to the center. They believe it is unsafe, and they want the opportunity to continue to work remotely, since we’ve been doing so effectively for three months now with great success. From their vantage point, the risk of going back into physical contact is not warranted. They are wiling to lose their jobs rather than take that risk.

Meanwhile, our country is experiencing the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression of the 1920s. Many new college grads are spending their days alternating between applying for jobs and worrying about how they are going to pay their bills. They are taking jobs that have nothing to do with their degrees just to get a paycheck coming in. They are willing to take risks to work in environments that seem unsafe because they need money — that one little stimulus check way back in April has been gone for weeks, if they received it in the first place. From their vantage point, any work is better than no work.

Families are sitting in their cars in long lines to pick up free food because their money is gone. They worry they’ll lose their homes or that they will get Covid and need medical care that they can no longer afford because they lost their health care along with their jobs.

And each day we hear another story of a family and a community who have senselessly lost someone they love due to racial violence. We’ve heard about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, but there have been many others. It’s not bad enough that these families are trying to manage the physical and financial ramifications of a pandemic, they are also grieving the loss of lives cut short for no good reason.

Most of us cannot imagine processing that kind of trauma on top of already overwhelming stress of all the change that we’ve undergone because of this pandemic. And we likely won’t have to. That kind of shit doesn’t happen in our communities, in our families. And we have this sense that we are invincibile. untouchable.

Yesterday, my daughter was out running in Boston and had her mask down around her neck until she saw someone approaching. At that point, she put her mask on out of respect for the other person, to reduce the risk of unknowingly contaminating him. He saw her put on her mask — he wasn’t wearing one — and he shouted at her angrily, “Really? Really?” as though he was offended by her gesture. From his vantage point, my daughter was protecting herself from him.

This morning in his rural church, my father-in-law who is 80+, was wearing a mask. A fellow congregant — without a mask — approached him and said, “Who are you protecting yourself from?” It was an indictment — didn’t my father-in-law trust the people he went to church with to be free of disease? From that man’s vantage point, my father-in-law’s mask was ridiculous, unnecessary, an affront.

We have difficulty understanding the the actions and words of those who are experiencing life right now from a different vantage point. We don’t understand why a septuagenarian with cancer would go to a social event without a mask, what would cause a white man to shout at a complete stranger for merely pulling on a mask, or why a person with a job would refuse to go to work while countless others are desperately looking for employment.

We don’t understand the kind of history and indoctrination that would lead someone to take the life of another simply because of the color of their skin or what it must feel like to lose everything that you have. We only see the story from our own vantage point.

Unless, unless, we are willing to look at the events from a different point of view. What might happen if we set down our bags full of belief and assumption and took one step to the left or the right and tried to view the world from a different vantage point? Might we be able to understand a person’s desire to move freely inside the community she has known for decades? Might we feel the fear and outrage of someone who can’t comprehend why centuries-long misconceptions about race can’t be finally put away? Might we see the horror of watching a loved one have the oxygen pressed out of him? Might we appreciate both the need for work and the need to feel safe going to work?

Life is very complex. When over 300 million people live inside one country, they can’t all be standing on the same piece of ground — they won’t all have the same vantage point. If we want to come together and build a more perfect union, we’re going to have to walk around a little bit and see how others view things. We’ll have to share our stories and blend them into a more reliable narrative.

Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace.

I Corinthians 13:11

Coronavirus Diary #12: Taking Risks

We’re still here. We’re sitting in the midst of 2020, continuing to daily discover the elements of this new reality, and starting to take some risks.

I met a friend at a park yesterday, to share a cup of coffee, to chat, to get to know one another a little better, and to discuss challenges and opportunities we have encountered in writing and in education. I walked up to find her sitting at a picnic table, mask in hand. I’d left my mask in the car, absentmindedly. We agreed to situate ourselves at a table “six feet apart” which feels awkward. We find ourselves willing to taking a risk to sit in that awkwardness in order to be together, to build relationship, to share life.

My husband and I were in a similar situation last week when we met with the members of our community group outside. We hadn’t physically been together since early March, and we were excited to see one another, but what would’ve have been hugs turned into awkward negotiations of space as we gathered around a picnic table to chat and catch up. We all agreed to take some measured risk, to share space, to hear one another’s voices in person, to build community.

Yesterday morning, after my meet-up at the park, I was driving to my first Hellerwork appointment since March 24, when I passed a large group of people gathering to walk to mark the celebration of Juneteenth and to acknowledge that though we’ve come a long way from the days of slavery, we have a long way yet to go before people of color experience equity in America. I saw many, most wearing masks, walking in groups of two or five or eight, carrying signs, wearing T-shirts with messages of unity and support. They were willing to take a risk — to come outside and gather during a pandemic — for the sake of racial equity.

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/06/hundreds-gather-in-ann-arbor-to-celebrate-juneteenth-march-against-racism.html

On Friday night, my husband and I watched Just Mercy (streaming for free right now), a story that horrified me when I read the book several years ago, but doubly horrified me at this watching as I got a deeper realization of the hatred and harm that has been inflicted on Black bodies over the course of our nation’s history and that is still happening right now. We risked feeling uncomfortable on a Friday night, when we could’ve chosen yet another comedy or feel-good drama — either of which might’ve distracted us from this current reality. We took this risk to acknowledge the truth of our nation’s history and to realize the value of celebrating Juneteenth.

I walked into my practitioner’s office on Saturday wearing a mask; she was wearing one, too. In order to treat me, she has to be up close and personal, touching my body, sharing my space. She manipulates my fascia, kneads my muscles, coerces my IT band, and tries to convince my SI joint that it can indeed function according to design. She’s taking a risk to care for me, and I’m thankful. I’m taking a risk to see her, to allow her to get back to work after three months at home, and she’s thankful.

I head from that appointment to the pharmacy to pick up a medication that keeps my ocular herpes in check, to pick up a birthday and a graduation card, and to purchase more immune support tablets. The pharmacist is behind a sheet of plastic, but she takes the items I have touched, scans them, and hands me my bag. She’s taking a risk to support my health. I’m taking a risk, too. We both wear our masks; our eyes meet. I thank her; she thanks me.

From there I walk next door to the grocery store. I get two of every item on the list, check the stock and price of toilet paper (even though we now — finally — have a two-month supply at home), and stand on the X that keeps me 6 feet away from the next person in line for the cashier. I give the person ahead of me plenty of room to make his purchases and then move forward when it’s my turn. I swipe my card, place my bags back in the cart, and then take the receipt that is handed to me, knowing it has been touched by other human hands. Those hands have taken a risk to serve me, and I have taken a risk to be served.

Every day right now, it seems, comes with a level of risk I had not been aware of before. It’s a risk to buy groceries, get gas, see the doctor, or visit a friend. Activities that were previously mundane and performed without much thought now take a measured intentional approach, which I am willing to take for the things that I need.

Am I willing to take risks for others, too?

Am I willing to speak out against injustice? Am I willing to say — and post — that Black lives matter? Am I willing to walk in a protest? Am I willing to challenge the misconceptions of others? Am I willing to risk friendships with people who disagree with me?

Am I willing to point out the audacity of a president who encouraged thousands of people to gather on his behalf — to sit side by side in an enclosed space — not six feet apart around an outdoor picnic table? Am I willing to be outraged at the language he used to threaten those who might protest such a gathering?

Am I willing to risk examining my own beliefs, my own thoughts, my own choices? Am I willing to see my own prejudice? My own selfishness? My own fears? My own mistakes?

I want to be willing. I want you to be willing. I want us to be willing.

It’s scary, knowing the risk of danger, of infection, of change, of progress.

We step out carefully, wearing our masks, looking in one another’s eyes, keeping a safe distance, listening carefully, examining our hearts, interrogating our motives, and willing to exchange the ways we have known for a way that will ensure the safety, livelihood, and freedom of others.

It might be uncomfortable to do things differently — maybe even a little bit risky — but as one Black life after another is cut down before our very eyes, as they have been being cut down for hundreds of years, the risk of staying silent, of continuing in the path we have been on, is greater still.

I’m ready — are you ready — to start taking some risks.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.

Isaiah 1:17

Coronavirus Diary #10: Demo and Rehab

How are we all doing? I feel like we need a check-in, because this has been some kind of year — we’ve got a pandemic going on (US fatalities have surpassed 110,000), unemployment continues at record highs (it’s improving, but at least 13% of Americans are still unemployed), the US economy is far from recovery, and protests continue across the country demanding a dismantling of systemic racism.

It’s a lot. So, how are we all doing?

Me? I feel hopeful, passionate, energized!

I told my mom that the other day. She asked if I’d see the news — what did I think of all the protests.

When I replied, “I’m excited!” I heard silence on the other end. I think her filter was firmly in place, or she might have said, “Have you lost your mind?”

So I said, “I know it sounds crazy, but this could be the moment that we’ve been waiting for — this could be the chance to tear it all down and rebuild.”

I’m not sure that comforted her.

I mean, tearing it all down does sound kind of scary…unless you’ve watched HGTV.

Every show starts the same — the hosts walk into some flea-ridden, dilapidated, mold-encrusted, falling down structure; they survey each room discussing what needs to be done and what it will cost; and then they get out their sledge hammers and start tearing out all the stuff that can’t or shouldn’t be salvaged.

Transformation always starts with demo.

It’s the only way. Putting new over old or propping up an existing structure is only a temporary fix. Duct tape can only hold for so long. If you want to see new life inhabit a space that has run its course, served its time, and is badly in need of rehabilitation, you have to do a total gut rehab.

And it’s time.

Our foundation, built on the backs of slaves and designed to perpetuate the wealth and success of the few, was faulty to begin with, and now the earth has shifted. What’s held in place for almost 250 years is showing signs of age and decay, and we are sorely in need of renovation.

The cost of this remodel is high — higher than any of us can imagine — and all the guys in suits are looking at the existing structure and the suggestions for change, shaking their heads, and saying, “it can’t be done!”

But here’s the thing, it can’t NOT be done. We can’t push these repairs off any longer, or the whole structure is going to crumble under our feet. The foundation is cracked, the supports are wobbling, and one strong wind is gonna topple the whole thing to the ground.

I can hear the storm rolling in. And it just might be a perfect storm.

We all had to slow down sometime in March when we got sent home from work. Forbidden from socializing, we all started watching the news a bit more because, um, our very lives were at stake. And it was at the moment when we all recognized our mortality that we tuned in and watched a white man kill a black man right in front of our eyes.

And, because their very lives were at stake, people of color and many, many allies, stood up, walked out of their doors, and said, “Enough is Enough!” A whole nation had already come together to battle Covid-19, so it was already positioned to come together against another enemy. The masses were connected on social media, meeting through Zoom calls, Facetime, and every other platform known to man, so it was a only small step from, “Hey, could you and your people sew up about 1,000 masks,” to “Hey, could you and your people make a bunch of signs and meet us at the steps of the capital, outside the White House, on Washtenaw Avenue, or on Forest Park Parkway?”

And didn’t they show up! Across the country and around the world, people are showing up, in the midst of a pandemic, despite instances of continuing brutal policing, spraying of tear gas, and countless arrests. People are showing up!

People are showing up on social media, in the streets, with their money, with their signs, on their feet, and on their knees. They are demanding a gut rehab, chanting, “Tear it down, tear it down, tear it down, tear it down!”

And doesn’t that energize you? Doesn’t it energize you to think they if we eradicate all the mold, tear out all the termite-eaten boards, and break up that cracked up foundation, we might see possibility?

The demo can be jarring, but what comes next is invigorating.

I always love the part of the rehab show where the designers walk into the newly configured blank space. They stand amid the bones, gesturing and pointing, deciding together, “what if we opened up this wall? how about a large window at the back overlooking the yard?” It’s at that moment that any possibility exists — the broken, the outdated, the filth has been removed — a fresh start lies ahead.

Visionaries are right now tossing their blueprints on the table — plans for changing the ways communities are policed, how we respond to crisis, how we elect our leaders, how we organize education. And, maybe because of the pandemic, our schedules, our pace, our regular work flow have been interrupted, and we all suddenly have the time, the space, the capacity to imagine a new way. I mean, since March, we’ve been literally living a new way, so it’s not a huge stretch to re-imagine all kinds of different ways of living our lives, organizing our days, and restructuring our communities.

This could be the perfect time — and it’s long overdue — for a gut rehab.

The cost may be high, but our combined wealth should be able to manage it. We have the ingenuity, the resources, the creativity, and the passion. Why wouldn’t we pool our resources, and invest in the future of our country? After all, the return on our investment might just be that more perfect union with liberty and justice for all.

Doesn’t that get you excited?

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

Romans 12:18

I’m reposting this today with a few resources tacked on — I know that I feel inspired and compelled to learn more, do more, and in some way contribute to the rehab of our country. If you, too, feel inspired, check out these resources:

Coronavirus Diary #9: Comorbidities –Pandemic and Racism

Often illness is complicated: a person doesn’t typically just have heart disease; he likely has comorbidities, or other diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure that are present at the same time. Depression often coexists with anxiety; skin rashes often accompany allergies. When someone gets sick, the doctors often first deal with the ‘presenting problem’ or the one that is currently causing the most difficulty. However, in the course of treatment, other underlying issues are often discovered.

Several years ago, I went to the doctor with a presenting problem — actually a few presenting problems — joint pain, fatigue, and inflamed patches of skin. The doctors diagnosed psoriatic arthritis, and I began treatment. In the wake of that diagnosis, other issues surfaced — iritis, scleritis, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, a tendency toward overwork, a highly critical spirit, and deep, soul-wrenching, unexpressed grief.

Several weeks ago, we were all sent home because our nation had a presenting problem — a coronavirus pandemic. Now that over 1.7 million of us have been diagnosed with this illness and over 100,000 have died, some comorbidities are starting to surface — broad weaknesses in structures like education, health care, and criminal justice; a struggling economy; and, most notably right now, flaring systemic racism.

We were wearing our masks, staying at home, washing our hands, and applauding our essential workers when we started hearing about the disproportionate impact of this virus on people of color (nearly two times as many as would be expected based on population). And then another series of senseless deaths hit the headlines:

Ahmaud Arbury was shot to death while he was out for a run on February 23.

Breonna Taylor on March 13 was killed by police who shot her eight times in the middle of the night in her own home.

George Floyd died with a police officer’s foot on his neck, begging for air, on May 25.

It wasn’t enough that communities of color were losing fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters every day to Covid — now they (and we) have over and over watched video clips of two of their own (Arbury and Floyd) actually being killed.

Citizens across the country — black, white, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight — are outraged and are taking to the streets demanding attention for this sickness — this disease — this epidemic.

It’s not new. Racism is part of the very fabric of our country — its threads are dyed with the blood of Native Americans and African slaves who paid the price for straight white males to expand their territory, build their monuments, and amass their riches. For centuries, non-whites have provided manpower in exchange for lower pay, fewer opportunities, and a gaze of suspicion. For centuries, the lives of brown and black people have been deemed expendable — by slave owners, by riot police, by the judicial system, by the educational system, by you, and by me.

We have never had this disease under control, but now that we are weakened by our presenting problem — Covid 19 — and starting to feel the added pressure from the resulting financial crisis, the underlying sickness is starting to flare. In a matter of just a week or two, its strength seems to have dwarfed that of a global pandemic — a pandemic that sent all of us racing to our homes, dragging out our sewing machines to create masks, and washing our produce and surfaces like our lives depended on it.

While just a few weeks ago, most of us were reluctant to leave our homes for fear of catching a life-threatening virus, thousands are taking to the streets to fight a bigger demon — one that questions our humanity.

If we can watch a man die on national television and not be moved to action, who have we become?

If we can stand by while a woman is shot inside her own home — a woman who had not committed a crime or posed a threat to anyone — what else will we tolerate?

If we are not sickened by two white men gunning down an unarmed human in broad daylight, what is the matter with us?

If I’ve learned anything about healing sickness, it’s this — to have any hope of recovery at all, you’ve got to be willing to look the disease straight in the face and see it for all it is, and then you have to be willing to make drastic intentional change.

To recover from what on the surface appeared to be psoriatic arthritis, I had to slowly and carefully examine each underlying issue and then I had to make significant changes to my home, my job, my diet, my exercise, my ways of dealing with emotion, and my attention to self-care. Even then change did not happen overnight. Slowly, over the course of more than seven years so far, I have experienced improved health.

For our nation to have any hope of recovering from a centuries-long battle with racism, we’re going to have to start with taking a long hard look at how deeply this disease has permeated the cells and tissues of our society — and I think we are starting to. We are scratching the surface. We are starting to see the disparities in pay, in health care, in education, in the judicial system, and, you know, I think Covid-19 paved the way for that. When the numbers started showing how hard communities of color were being hit, brave leaders started to talk about why. And now that we are seeing these blatant horrific examples of outright racial hostility, thousands are taking to the streets, demanding that the rest of us take that long hard look, that we see the pus-infected wounds, and that we make sweeping intentional changes — to tear down oppressive policies and practices, to promote reparative measures, to provide spaces in which people can air their grievances and be heard, and to create new systems that provide access for all people regardless of color, or gender, or income, or background.

Sweeping systemic change and recovery won’t happen immediately, but if we are willing to commit to working together to make space for the stories of individuals who have been harmed by broad systemic racism, to interrogate our own conscious and unconscious biases, and to insist on structural changes; if we will commit to stay the course day in and day out, having hard conversations and working through difficulty; slowly, over time, we will begin to see life return to our bodies and restoration spring up in our communities.

When all of us — all of us — are breathing freely, walking safely, and sleeping peacefully, we will enjoy a new kind of freedom, a new way of living, a rich expression of humanity.

I beg you to join me in joining those who have been doing this hard and essential work.

I’ll start by posting some resources. Will you start by checking them out?

75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice

26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets

The Next Question with Austin Channing Brown

We Live Here

Code Switch

Black Lives Matter

If you have other resources you would like me to add to this list, please share them in the comments below.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

Memorial Day, in the time of Covid-19

Click to hear this post read aloud.

On any other Memorial Day, we’d be packing up picnic baskets, putting the finishing touches on the potato salad, and donning festive red, white, and blue.

We’d be joining friends around picnic tables, under tents, next to pools.

We’d be driving to cemeteries to pay our respects, plant flags, and place flowers.

We’d be remembering those lost in wars, yes, and those we’ve lost, period.

But today, in the time of Covid, when almost 100,000 have died in the US from the Coronavirus alone over the last three months, let alone all who have died of heart failure, stroke, car accidents, cancer, violent crimes, or suicide… when gathering — even in groups no larger than ten — can bring a risk of transmission leading to even more illness or death, Memorial Day is going to look a little different.

Families who have lost loved ones in the last three months have not had the privilege of holding their loved ones’ hands as they have died. They have not gathered for funerals. They have not hugged one another and cried. They have not had a chance to grieve — to accept the reality of death. What does their Memorial Day look like this year?

The New York Times covered the front page with this image, and yet few of us can wrap our minds around the reality of — the “incalculable loss” — of nearly 100,000 deaths.

The Times ran this memorial perhaps as a way for us to remember, to conceptualize, to note, to grieve, to mourn. It’s a list of names of a fraction of those who have died complete with brief descriptions, epitaphs, if you will, that help us attach lives of real people to the numbers. People like:

Alan, Peter, Joseph, Mary, and Lorena, loved by their friends and families, despite their weaknesses and flaws, will be missed, and mourned, and remembered, so will the other thousands upon thousands, as will those who have died in the last year from all things not Covid.

I don’t know how you are remembering today — if you are indeed visiting a cemetery, if you are gathering with a few friends, if you are isolating at home, if you are doing the same thing you’ve done every single day since somewhere in the middle of March, or if you will sit in your yard, on your porch, or on your couch, quietly remembering those you have lost.

We’ve spent the weekend visiting with those we have not lost — my in-laws, my parents, and my godmother — through porch visits and phone calls, taking care not to contaminate — keeping distance, wearing masks. We have laughed, smiled, and realized that life is precious.

We taught Ken, 85, Caseville, MI, who left home at thirteen and became a millwright and a father, how to use Google Duo to videochat with his kids and grandkids. We heard Dorothy, 83, Caseville, MI, a retired second grade teacher, talk about the time she helped her two sons transport a 17-foot aluminum canoe in a Chevette.

We greeted Margaret, 90, Bay City, MI, who after working on a factory line in the ’40s and ’50s loved collecting hand-painted china and now lives a few miles away from her husband of 70 years, unable to see him since they are in separate facilities that are both sheltering their residents.

We chatted with Harold, 81, Brownsburg, IN, retired businessman, who once hitchhiked from Michigan to California to buy a vehicle after serving his time in the Marines; we laughed with Joyce, (age withheld to protect myself from harm), Brownsburg, IN, a beloved fifth-grade teacher, who’s trying to figure out how to help others with her stimulus check.

Today we’ll see Roger, 75, St. Louis, MI, a butcher turned grocery store manager turned prison shopkeeper who enjoys riding his motorcycle and golfing, and Carol, 78 St. Louis, MI, a former hospital unit secretary who has spent most of her days finding ways to show love to her children and grandchildren.

And then we’ll head home, thankful that on this Memorial Day we have no fresh grief, other than the collective groaning of our nation.

And that groaning we will hold in our hearts as we continue to isolate at home, wear our masks when we venture out, and do our part to slow the spread, to reduce the casualties, so that we (and others) can spend more days with those we have not yet lost.

For those who are freshly grieving today, I extend my heart. May you find comfort in your mourning and joy for your soul.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Coronavirus Diary #8: Watching and Waiting

We’re gardening today — spreading dirt and manure on the ground, raking it back and forth, making holes and troughs with our hands, and pushing tiny little seeds into the earth in the hope that they will split open and produce new life.

We’re welcoming the chance to be outside — to do something besides Zoom calls, watching television, housekeeping, or cooking.

We’ve prepared the ground — loosened the soil, coaxed out all the weeds that had sprouted since the winter thaw, and lined our little garden plot with pinwheels that will hopefully spin in the wind and deter any critters from helping themselves to whatever pops up.

We’ve purchased seeds — carrots, beets, peas, lettuce, kale, radishes, and cantaloupe — and a few plants — tomatoes and peppers. We’ve halved a few seed potatoes, donned our gloves, and gathered our tools.

We do this each year, of course — put in a small garden — because we really love the taste of fresh tomatoes, and because I just can’t get over the wonder I feel when tiny seeds split beneath the soil and push fresh life toward the sun.

We’re on our knees in the dirt and manure — spreading the filth with our hands and dropping in tiny seeds of potential.

While we are at it — dirt beneath our fingers, and sweat glistening on our brows — we’re planting red and white petunias in the beds that face campus, small flags of welcome, in the hope that instructors, staff, and students return soon.

We’ve put chairs and a small table near the garden so that we can sit and watch — sipping tea, reading books, working crosswords — and wait for the first fingers of green to break through the earth, the first humans to walk onto campus.

We’re waiting and watching for new life, rebirth, resurrection.

And isn’t that what we are all hoping for right now? Aren’t we hoping that as new life springs from the earth we’ll find new life in our days? Aren’t we hoping that when we emerge from our homes, we’ll feel refreshed, renewed, restored?

Aren’t we hoping that the funk, the fatigue, and the frustration will fall away? that the sick will be healed, the hungry will be fed, the poor will be made rich? that we’ll gather with our people, embrace, and rejoice?

I mean — yes! That’s what we hope for!

And so we get on our knees in this rich soil of possibility. We plant seeds of hope — for recovery for the sick, for employment for the jobless, for reunions of distant loved ones, for reconciliation among those divided, for a new way, a new path, a new life.

I can’t stand next my garden and shout my seeds into growing. I can’t demand that my tomato plants produce fruit. In fact, my only role is to place the seeds in the ground, water them, and wait.

I can’t demand that this virus stop spreading, that demonstrators put down their weapons, or that leaders come together in a united approach for the good of our country. I mean, I can try, but for what? My power lies only in my willingness to go to my knees, to share what I have, to encourage the lonely, to watch, and to wait.

It can feel a little powerless unless you remember that every single year when I’ve pressed tiny seeds into the earth, new life has come forth — whether I’ve been sitting next to the garden watching or have abandoned it to go on vacation. The tiniest seeds of faith have yielded fruit.

Every. Single. Year.

More so, the prayers that I have whispered, cried, and shouted from my knees have born rich fruit — miraculous answers, incredible victories, astounding reconciliations.

Time after time after time.

So, I return to what I know. I get on my knees and plant my hopes — for my garden, for our world, for our future. Then, I watch, and I wait.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:5

Coronavirus Diary #6: Touching

When the sun came out this weekend and warmed the earth, we stepped outside, donned brand new gardening gloves, pulled each weed from our garden plot, trimmed last year’s death away from our irises, washed grime off our outdoor chairs, and began to see signs of promise.

We began to look forward to the next phase where we’ll push seeds into the ground — carrots and peas and beets and radishes– and when we’ll spread fresh mulch on our flower beds. Maybe this year we’ll actually find some time to plant some annuals.

Signs of new life are all over campus. Tiny green leaves have sprouted on the wild blackberries at the edge of the woods behind our yard. Peonies and tulips have broken through the soil just as the daffodils have begun to take their final bow. The rose behind our house, pruned a few weeks ago, is thick with leaves and hinting at buds.

Do I dare to walk out to check the lilac? Could he be waking up, too?

Is it possible that we’ll soon be able to move some of our hours outside? to emerge from our four-walled isolation? To touch the earth? To smell the flowers? To feel the breeze on our skin?

Soon. The weatherman says it’ll be cool with scattered showers for the next week or two. This flash of 70s and sunny was a glimpse of what’s coming — a glimmer of hope.

So we leaned in. We played 80s jams — Doobie Brothers, America, Steely Dan — and sang along as we sat loosening the weeds from the soil. We smiled as we chatted, not rushing, just happy to have our hands in the dirt, to smell the earth, to feel the sun on our faces.

And as we were working there, on our knees in our garden, an unfamiliar Buick rolled right up next to us. An elderly man opened the passenger door and stepped out — no mask, no gloves, just a Laborers for Christ baseball cap. He told us his name and said, “Twenty-five years ago I stayed in these dorms for six weeks while we remodeled them.” My husband put down his tools, stood up, and stepped closer. He reached out his now ungloved hand, saying “Thank you so much! What a difference you made! Your work is still making a difference!” He shook the man’s gnarled hand, looked him in the eye, and smiled.

The man continued on, stringing memories together, a little confused, wondering if the dining hall was open or if he could go into a residence hall. Well no, my husband said, not with the pandemic. “Oh, right, right,…” the man said, as he got back in the car that his son was driving. They turned the car around and drove away.

I guess it was a sunny day and they just needed to get outside, to go for a drive, to remember a different time, and to make sure that the work of a long time ago still mattered.

It does. Even though the residence halls are all but empty. Even though some of them are due for another round of sprucing up. Even though he couldn’t peek inside. His work still matters.

I’m glad my husband instinctively knew what this man was looking for. After weeks shut in at home, with little outside interaction, knowing that he’ll likely not walk this earth too much longer, he wanted to see if the work of his life mattered.

My instinct when my husband reached out his hand, I have to admit, was fear. I almost said, “Stop! Wait! Don’t shake hands! We’re not shaking hands right now!” Wasn’t my husband the one who just yesterday took great pains at the park to walk off the path and to wait patiently for others to pass so that we could maintain our six feet of distance? Isn’t he the one, with me, who opens each piece of mail at the door, refusing to let the outer packaging come in the house, the one who washes each purchased item, each piece of produce, before it’s allowed to sit inside our fridge?

Did he suddenly forget all the precautions we are taking?

Maybe.

Maybe he forgot.

Or maybe his heart noticed a greater need. One that — ever so occasionally — trumps the precautions we’ve been taking for weeks.

For weeks we’ve touched no one except our spouses and possibly our children. For weeks we’ve seen no one in physical form other than those living inside our homes and the people we strategically avoid in public spaces, delicately shifting to the other side of the path, the street, the aisle to keep our distance. We’ve had all of our interactions over the phone, Zoom, and FaceTime. We’ve stayed within our private spaces in order to slow the spread of disease, flatten the curve, and protect ourselves and others.

But sometimes after you’ve seen no one in the flesh since sometime in March, an elderly gentleman steps into your garden, wondering if in his life he made an impact, and it suddenly becomes exactly the right thing to do to reach out, shake his hand, and say, “You made a difference.”

Touching can make a difference.

We won’t be making this a practice any time soon — touching friends, family, or complete strangers who step into our garden — but for this gentleman, who needed some reassurance on a day that offered the hope of Spring, touch seemed more than appropriate. It seemed like the human and loving thing to do.

This afternoon, my husband asked if I’d seen the lilac bush near our house. I told him I hadn’t, so we walked, plucked a small sprig of blossoms, and I held them to my nose and breathed in.

They smelled like Spring; they smell like hope.

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

I Thessalonians 5:11