Back-to-School, 2020 Teacher Edition

Each morning last week, I opened my laptop and clicked on a zoom link to join the team at my new school. In some ways this Summer Summit, the name my school gives to back-to-school teacher inservice training, is reminiscent of many other trainings I have attended. I’ve been learning about the school’s culture and procedures, getting familiar with faculty and staff names and faces, and examining curricula, assessments, behavior management plans, the master schedule, and school-wide protocols — all the regular details of back to school preparation.

However, in some ways it’s very different due to the added layer of preparing for teaching in the era of Covid-19. I’ve learned how to meet with kids virtually through Zoom, how to deliver and receive content digitally through Google classroom, how to maintain online investment and engagement and build relationships with kids who I’ll see only on a screen, and how to stay safe in the school building where I’ll be working while students work from home.

And, this year, I have one more layer that I keep trying to look at, assess, and interrogate — my deeply rooted racism. I know it’s there, and I’m trying to call it out and deal with it as much as I can.

The first time I saw it last week was when I noticed myself chiming in to provide answers during instructional sections — I knew the answers, so why shouldn’t I unmute myself? But then I heard a small voice saying, Hey, Kristin, why don’t you pause a minute and see if someone else would like to speak? I took a moment to recognize that as a white woman, I’ve had all kinds of opportunities to speak — in fact, I’ve been the leader at several back to school trainings like this — my voice has been heard plenty. How can I learn, in this setting where half or more of the staff members are people of color, to close my mouth and listen to the voices of people who have been in the setting longer, know the community better, and who might have something to teach me?

This realization may have been sparked by the fact that I recently started listening to the Podcast Nice White Parents. It’s a story of the history of “well-intentioned” white parents who have attempted to integrate black schools in New York City and who have often done so by plowing in, demanding their voices be heard, and failing to acknowledge the culture and values of the people of color who were in the school first. Instead, they have come in waving money and shouting loudly about what should be done with it, silencing those who’d been just fine thankyouverymuch before the white people showed up. I’ve been cringing through these episodes, seeing my own well-intentioned-ness in the rearview mirror.

Midway through last week’s training one of the leaders inside a small group of a dozen of us, posed a sharing question to check in on how we are doing and how we are managing stress. It was the day after a 17 year old white boy in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot and killed two protestors in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday, but when I was called on to respond, Kenosha was not at the front of my mind. I said that I was doing well, happy to be part of the team, and managing my stress by taking long walks with my husband. I then sat and listened as the Black men and women in the group took their turns, mentioned their grief and fear in light of recent events, and their passion for caring for our students, 99% of whom are Black. I felt conspicuous. Of course I am there for these students, too, but my privilege, my racism, was exposed in that moment. I could easily share, untouched by the impact of such racial violence. Though I had just the night before been horrified as I watched the video of the shooting on national news, my feelings of injustice — no matter how strong they are — can in no way compare to the lived realities of many of my new coworkers, and I’ve got to acknowledge that.

I’ll be supported in the interrogation and dismantling of my own racism because the school’s mission is explicitly anti-racist. All week long I heard the refrain of ensuring access, closing the achievement gap, and providing resources to ensure that our students have everything they need to succeed. I completed an hours-long course on strategies and language to use to convey the importance of education to my students and the imperative for 100% participation and 100% success.

And not only did I hear the refrain, I saw the practices enacted in our professional development. Staff members were provided scaffolding and support as they learned to function virtually through Zoom. We were given step-by-step instructions and modeling in the use of Google Classroom. We were given breaks away from the screen and incentives like gift cards and fun games that encouraged us to participate. Every instructional practice I will be expected to use — from the technology, to lesson planning, to behavior management — was modeled for me.

I’ve been walked through how to set behavioral expectations, how to use Google Forms to create informal assessments that I will use every single class period (as will everyone else on the team), how to use Google Slides to guide my students through each lesson, how to use my language to encourage my students to show up, opt in, work hard, finish strong, and reflect. We’ve played games, we’ve had hard conversations, we’ve laughed, and we’ve worked!

Why so intense? Because it matters that we get it right — lives are at stake. Whole futures weigh in the balance. Over 300 of our high schoolers have been at home since March, with varying levels of support and resources. Many of them live in poverty in communities that are under-resourced. Many have been fighting to survive in ways that I am sure I will never fully understand. Because we want to provide them with opportunities and access, we are committed to giving high-quality instruction. Because we want them to be able to use their voices and to have choices to pursue education, to obtain employment, to follow their dreams, and to live their fullest lives, we have high expectations for engagement and achievement.

And if I have high expectations for my students, I must also have high expectations for myself. If I expect them to learn and grow, I must be willing to learn and grow, too. If I want them to invest in their education, I must first demonstrate my willingness to invest.

So, I listen to podcasts that make me cringe. I lean into learning about all the technology and all the evidence-based practices. I commit to learning the culture of the school and conforming to the way they do things around here. I acknowledge that I have deeply imbedded racist beliefs, I call them out when I see them, and I invite others to call out the ones I don’t see.

When we were broken into our departments to analyze assessments and do lesson planning, I was thrilled to see that my two English department colleagues are Black women. They will be my guides, my mentors, my supports. I have a lot to learn, and I am thankful for the posture of willingness they have greeted me with. They are sharing resources, answering my questions, taking my phone calls, and welcoming me aboard. The highlight of my week was the end of one of our departmental sessions when the team leader looked into her camera and said, “We have got a dope squad!” Guys, I’m part of a dope squad!

I want to be very mindful of the privilege I’ve been given here — the opportunity, after believing my career was over, to use my gifts of writing and teaching in a community that is committed to social justice and the dismantling of racist systems, working side by side with highly qualified people of color. I could never have dreamt it was possible, but I am thankful, and I am ready.

I’ll put in this hard work; this is what I was built for.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.

Colossians 3:23

P.S. Many of you have offered support as I step into this work. So many of you have said you are praying for me and will continue to do so. I can’t tell you what that means to me. I will continue to take donations of surplus school supplies (I will never say no to all the surplus paper, folders, pens, highlighters that you have piled up at your house). I will always take book donations — particularly books that feature people of color and memoirs. Additionally, I learned this week that our school offers student incentives for showing up and working hard. I would love to have a stock pile of prizes for my students — I’m thinking small items like college logo cups, stickers, pencils, pens, etc. — think all those freebies you get wherever you go — or gift cards to Target, McDonald’s, etc. in small denominations such as $5 or less (free drink, etc.). I am open to suggestions, too! Thank you for all the support you have given me so far.

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

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 #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 #7: Finding our way

When I wrote my first “Coronavirus Diary” on March 30, I could not have guessed that I would be writing a weekly series that seems to have no end. Could any of us have predicted that we would be working from home, wearing masks to the store, and zooming with our family and friends for most of the Spring?

We’ve been quarantining at home for going on eight weeks now! You might think that the time has dragged on, but my husband and I keep looking at each other and saying, “Is it Friday again already?”

Our days look mostly the same — wake up, morning routine, work, cook, walk, eat, TV, sleep, repeat.

Sure, we have other engagements. We Zoom call our families. We grocery shop (which now includes an elaborate in-processing of purchased items that takes a chunk of each Saturday). We ‘gather’ with our small community group twice each week. We take care of our dog, clean the house, and try to remember to send cards and gifts to somehow mark birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, and the fact that we still care about our people even though we can’t see them.

We worry. We agonize. We pray.

Then we go to bed and get up the next day to do it again.

We don’t set long-term goals. We don’t make plans. We don’t go anywhere. Yet the time seems to be flying.

Even still, a lot can happen in the space of a week. A polar vortex can blow through. A friend can be hospitalized. A daughter can reach a milestone. A company can move from an almost expert response to a global pandemic to joining the ranks of those who have made sweeping layoffs and massive restructuring. A video of a shooting death of a man in broad daylight can circulate so widely and stir up so much outrage that a father and son who’ve been sitting freely at home for most of two months are arrested to the sounds of virtual cheering.

Thousands can protest nation-wide shutdowns. Thousands can been newly diagnosed. Thousands can recover. Thousands can die.

And we’re feeling it — all of it.

We’re edgy — quick to say a sharp word, snatch something from another, or walk away mad.

We’re raw — falling to tears and sobbing about the deaths, the uncertainty, the financial strain, the endless monotony of day after day, or the full sink of dishes. We cry because we’re tired, because we’re sick of being home, or simply because we ran out of Cheerios.

We’re angry — demanding that governments open up, complaining about the ‘idiots’ who keep congregating without wearing masks, and insisting that the person next to us would just stop chewing so loudly.

We’re doing our best to celebrate miracles — births and recoveries and job changes and college acceptances — and to mark graduations and birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.

Sometimes we can’t be bothered — we just don’t have the strength, the wherewithal, the awareness to reach out, to noice, to connect with each other, to wash our hair, or to change out of pajamas.

Yet somehow we’re figuring it out — doing our best — finding our way.

We’re finding our way by seeing the devastation and reeling from it, because that’s what you do when you are devastated — you reel. Try to brace if you like, try to harden yourself against the blow, but like it or not, when the impact hits, you’re gonna find yourself tumbling around trying to find your feet again. If you’ve been ordered home, lost your job, gotten sick, lost a loved one, or simply born witness to the losses of others, you might find yourself reeling. (If you don’t feel like like you’ve been smacked around a little bit, you might be fully in denial that almost 80,000 Americans have died, that millions have lost their jobs and are without money, food, and any sense of stability, and that none of us really knows what the next weeks or months look like.)

We’re finding our way by talking it through. When we talk on the phone, meet together on video chat, or sit next to each other in the evenings, we’re sharing the bits of news from the day, we’re asking hard questions, we telling each other that it’s hard to get out of bed, that we haven’t changed out of yoga pants since March, that we cancelled our vacation plans. We talk through the loss of a loved one, the test results, our latest cooking adventure, and the project that we’ve been working on.

We’re finding our way by reaching out. We call our parents who are weathering this ‘storm’. We touch base with our siblings more than we used to. We check in with friends and call our kids, listening to words, to tones, and to things left unsaid.

We’re finding our way by eating, sleeping, exercising, and deciding that we are going to do the next thing, even if it’s not the best thing, every. single. day.

And in the midst of all this finding our way, doing our best, and carrying on, we get tired and overwhelmed; we start to lose hope. We cry out.

Will it ever end? How long, O Lord, will you forget us forever?

Forget you? How could I? See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

You did? You did!

I did! And I’ve given you a future and a hope.

You have? You have!

I have. I will never leave you nor forsake you.

You won’t? You won’t!

Behold, I am making all things new.

You are? You are!

I am. From before the world began, I am.

That’s right. I remember.

We’re engraved on the palm of Your hand. You’ll never leave us nor forsake us. You are making all things new, from before the world began. You are.

Ok. We hear you. We do.

We’ll keep listening for your voice as we find our way.

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


Coronavirus Diary #5: Stating the Obvious (and the not so obvious)

Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced on Friday morning that we would continue our stay-at-home order until May 15. This makes sense to me. While our numbers in Michigan are leveling out and we haven’t had quite as many new cases every day, that seems to me to be the result of us all staying away from each other — slowing the spread, flattening the curve. Since the virus still exists, and many are still carrying it, it would seem foolish to all of a sudden drop restrictions and start interacting with one another face-to-face.

And no one is suggesting that we do that. Not for a while.

In fact, it seems that for a while we’ll be experimenting with tightening and loosening restrictions and seeing what happens. Some states are being criticized for ‘opening up’ too soon, putting financial stability ahead of public health. Other states are being criticized for keeping the restrictions too strict for too long.

I’m not in any position to have an opinion about the best way to proceed, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m told — sheltering in place, going out for necessity only and with an abundance of caution, washing my hands, and covering my face.

I can do these things with little difficulty because my husband and I can work from home, we have everything we need, and we have not been infected. We eat well, have access to all kinds of television shows, read good books, and sleep comfortably each night. Our loved ones are all safe and well, and we are able to communicate with them regularly.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

So, so many have lost their jobs and are suffering from the financial impact. Over 20% of our country is unemployed at the moment (26 million as of April 24, 2020). I can’t imagine the stress they must be feeling. While stimulus checks have been promised and unemployment payments have been subsidized, no one can really be sure when those dollars will arrive or if they will be enough. While more than half of qualifying Americans have received their stimulus checks, most of those who have filed for unemployment will be waiting a while to get financial assistance.

Many do not have what they need. Many families and individuals do not have enough food. Grocery stores are short on certain items due to shifting demands and the reorganizing of supply chains. Medical facilities continue to struggle to obtain necessary supplies and equipment.

Many, many are sick. As of this writing, over 2.8 million cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed around the world; over 200,000 have died. In the US, over 965,000 cases have been confirmed; over 54,000 have died. In Michigan alone, there are over 37,000 confirmed cases and over 3,300 deaths. And this is far from over.

Many have no time to rest. Parents of school-aged children are juggling their own work responsibilities while managing the educational, physical, social, and emotional needs of their children. Governmental leaders are doing their best to make decisions that impact all of us while facing criticism, protests, growing death tolls, and and a devastated economy. Essential workers have been burning the candle at both ends to provide medical care, necessary supplies, and food to the rest of us. They’ve been going steady for weeks on end, and they’ve got to be exhausted.

Some are unable to communicate with those that they love. We all have heard stories of people who have loved ones in the hospital who are sick or dying alone. Because of the danger of contagion, no one can visit. Often, it’s challenging to make contact of any kind — even a phone call. Some have been separated from loved ones who live in nursing homes — a generation that is unfamiliar with Smart phones, FaceTime and Zoom rooms.

So why am I writing all this? Am I just stating the obvious?

Probably.

But I think right now the obvious needs to be stated.

Because the obvious is heavy, and it’s a burden we can’t put down — now or anytime soon.

We’re lugging this load down a long dusty road, whipped by the wind, parched and tired, and we can’t see our destination — the place where we can set it all down.

We don’t know when it will be safe to hug our aging parents, when we’ll be able to play with our grandchildren, when we can sit across the table from our friends, or when we can simply get a haircut.

We don’t know when our finances will recover, when we’ll go back to work, when we’ll reschedule our vacations, or when we’ll worship together in church, gathering at the altar for the bread and the wine, joining our voices in song, hearing one another in prayer.

And what is not obvious is that walking around every day with this very heavy burden is exhausting. We’re tired, and tender, and emotional.

We feel weepy, then angry, then giddy, then hopeless, then resolute, then determined, then disappointed, then devastated, then weepy….

So, we think to ourselves, “let’s do something fun — go see some friends, have a party, go to the beach, have dinner out,” but then we realize the obvious:

we are under quarantine,

Covid 19 is a killer,

the only weapon we have to defend ourselves at the moment is social distancing,

supplies are tight,

people are suffering,

there’s not much we can do but to keep doing our part.

The obvious is heavy, so if you’re tired, it makes sense. Have a seat. Take a break. Call a friend. Laugh. Cry. Yell.

If you can, extend a hand. Connect with someone else.

Consider sharing — some time, some money, some food, some resources, some hope.

It’s a long dusty road, and the burden is heavy.

Let’s help one another along.

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

Coronavirus Diary #4, loss, grief, and encouragement

This past week as we faced snow-covered ground and chilling temps, I started to believe that life as we once knew it was over and we be quarantined forever. I started feeling anxious and a little bit desperate. What if this continues for months and we can’t see our parents or our children — our siblings or our friends?

I started considering scenarios in which my husband and I threw provisions in the car and drove the three hours to check in on his parents and then two more hours to check on mine. I saw us driving twelve hours straight east to see our daughters — to eat lunch with them at a picnic table out in the open — keeping space but close enough to touch only if we dared.

My emotions are heightening. I guess because this coming Saturday was supposed to be our son’s college graduation day — after four years serving in the Army and another four years going to classes, he was set to walk across the stage to roaring applause. We’d already envisioned ourselves there, yelling, clapping, whooping, and hollering. Last night, I checked his university’s website — again — and found next to the original details the word ‘canceled’ in red. Just canceled. Period.

Next week, our daughter was supposed to celebrate her college graduation, too. After six long years of studying and getting sober she was going to proudly don her cap and gown to celebrate her achievement and her recovery. We had the plane tickets, the days off, and the desire to cheer her on, but her university’s website says that the graduation will be held at a “time that is determined to be safe,” which right now feels like a long way off.

Because really, despite recent talk of Phase One, Phase Two, and Phase Three plans for coming out of quarantine, no one is bold enough to imagine a time when we’ll feel comfortable packing a stadium or an auditorium. No one is picturing a crowded courtyard where families kiss and hug and snap a million pictures. No one can say when those kinds of meetings will happen.

And so I’m trying to find ways right now to celebrate them. I’m trying to find ways to let them know that we care — that we are thinking of them — that we love them — that we are so, so proud of all that they’ve done and all that they are. Even when we can’t see them or be with them.

And nothing I can think of feels like enough.

I know I’m not alone in this. Surely countless individuals across the globe have cancelled parties, graduations, weddings, and even funerals. Worse, thousands now have lost their lives — over 166,000 as of this morning. Experts say that number would’ve been exponentially higher had we not all gone inside and closed our doors last month. We could be grieving much, much more.

And so we stay at home — we keep our distance — because we know it’s our job right now.

That, and grieving.

I’m grieving the loss of these celebrations — grieving them hard. I’m trying to remember that quarantining/social distancing is necessary action in order to save the lives of those we love so that we can celebrate another day, but today that’s just not helping me.

A few things are helping a bit.

Work is helping. I’m thankful — I am — that I have steady work. In fact, we are busy providing online instruction to kids who are trying to understand why they are suddenly not allowed to go to school, see their friends, go to church, or participate in sports. We are providing consistency by showing up every day and providing high quality instruction, and we’re trying to have a little fun — playing tic-tac-toe and battleship online, telling jokes, giving prizes, and being silly.

My friends are helping. I am part of a small group of women who have met for breakfast and prayer for the past several years. We’ve read several books together, we’ve retreated together, and we’ve stood with each other through significant life struggles, so it makes sense that we would continue to show up for each other now. The other morning we were meeting and one shared about how she is processing her grief.

She said she had read, “wailing women teach one another… in grieving we take time to experience and feel the emotions…it’s a way to bring everyone home…”

We all agreed to make ‘grief’ a focus of our prayers and our study right now…we might as well, because we had already begun grieving.

On Friday and Saturday, I ‘met’ with a broader group of women — 100 pastors’ wives who meet each Spring. Our in-person gathering was cancelled, but the leaders decided to offer an online gathering. We started on Friday night with a welcome video on Youtube which offered worship music and streaming photos from previous gatherings. Then, we met on Facebook to “play games”. A post would pose a question, “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” or “What would you never purchase ‘used’?” Dozens of women replied and commented in the moment, and I found myself sitting in my home office smiling and laughing. I felt so connected. Saturday morning, 100 of us met in a Zoom room for Bible study and prayer. I was so happy to just click through the four screens of familiar faces that I found myself asking if we could do this again soon — let’s not wait a whole year to get together again.

My family is helping. Like many of you, I’m talking to family more — we Zoom, we FaceTime, we phone call, we text. We crave connection from within our walls. We long to see one another — to check in, to laugh, to talk about this experience. It’s so good to see the familiar — those who’ve known us and loved us through all the seasons, who’ve seen us at our best and worst. Connecting with family feels like an anchor holding me in place reminding me of what we’ve already survived and that we’ll get through this, too.

My husband is helping. I’ve spent more than thirty years with this man, and he continues to be the one who sees me, understands me, cares for me, and wants to hang out with me. Right now we’re walking, laughing, hand washing produce and wiping down surfaces, and exploring obscure British television. I am so thankful he’s the one I’m sheltering in place with.

My dog is helping. Pure and faithful companionship — that’s all.

Here he is after surviving his Saturday bath.

My church is helping. We love our church. We love the people in our small group who we meet with every Thursday for conversation and prayer and who we worship “with” every Sunday as we sit in our own homes — joining each other on Facebook Messenger video chat while we stream our service on YouTube. We love our pastors, Gabe and Marcus, who continue to provide quality leadership through thoughtful messages on Sunday and twice throughout the week and who are coordinating and overseeing numerous activities to serve our congregation and our community during this time.

So, I’m grieving, as many of you are grieving, but I’m also hopeful because I’m connected — to friends, to family, to my husband, to my dog, and to my church. I’m gonna be sad in the coming weeks as I grieve the loss of some celebrations — some markers of significant life events for the people that I love — but I’m going to be ok.

The time of mourning will pass; we will celebrate again.

Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13