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 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

Narrative threads, re-visit

This post, written almost exactly two years ago, speaks to my heart today. Though winter seems to keep blasting on, though we’re still quarantined inside our homes for almost a month now, all is not lost. My rhubarb has once again dared to break through the frozen ground to remind me that this plot has yet to fully unfold.

In Michigan this year, winter had stamina. It seemed to begin way back in October and continue halfway through April. The temperatures were low, the snow banks were high, the skies were gray, and all felt bleak.

My daughter once informed me, after I had been an English teacher for well over a decade, that when nature imitates the mood of the story, literary critics refer to the phenomenon as pathetic fallacy.  

We see it all the time in literature and movies: rain falls during funerals, the sun shines on parades, lightning flashes and thunder claps as the evil villain hatches his plan.  Writers use the setting of a story to create mood and to signal for readers how they might feel about the action of the narrative.

Sometimes it seems to happen in real life, too.

As the winter wore on this year in all its bleakness, and as circumstances in the narrative of my life unfolded, I took my signal from nature and wrapped myself in gray. I didn’t see any buds on trees, any new growth in my garden, or any other signals from nature that I should hope. I saw the earth hunkering down under the weighty blanket of snow, and I hunkered, too. I wrapped myself in crocheted afghans, drank cup after cup of tea, and waited for the earth’s axis to tilt once again toward the sun.

Some moments, I didn’t believe it would. I felt we were stuck in winter forever. Storm after storm raged. Winds blew. Temperatures dropped. The world outside was harsh and unforgiving.  I had no reason to believe that we would ever again see tulips sprout from the earth.

I didn’t, of course, spend the whole winter under covers. I did what everyone who lives in the north does in the winter. I slathered my body in moisturizers, layered on clothing, pulled on boots, hat, gloves, and coat, and trudged into the elements. Day after day after long, cold, dismal day, I drove over slushy roads, stepped in salty puddles, and scraped icy windshields. The cold gray weather was both real and symbolic.

The problem with pathetic fallacy — with letting the setting signal the mood — is that you can lose your frame of reference. All winter I was shrouded in gray, so all of the action in my narrative seemed to take on that hue. Now, to be honest, my life narrative is cluttered at the moment with conflict and unresolved tension. Villains too numerous to list are executing evil plans and threatening to harm those that I love. However, in the midst of the gray of winter, I failed to see that simultaneously, a parallel plot was unfolding — one in which battles are fought and won, victory parades are held, and loved ones are reunited.

All. is. not. gray.

It’s been hard to see that — what with winter lasting so long. It’s been easy to fall for the fallacy — the mistaken belief — that all of life is cold, dark, dormant. In fact, I have over the last several months been pathetic — filled with all kinds of emotion. I have leaned in and felt things that I have not allowed myself to feel for a very long time. I have cried and yelled and moaned because I have looked fully at one strand of the narrative. I’m not sorry; I needed to see it. But guys, winter is gone.

I have a rhubarb plant outside my back door that peeked through the soil on my birthday at the end of March. Since then, it’s been slammed with winter weather — snow, sleet, wind, and rain — and still it is thriving. My garden is a bed of weeds, my yard is a mole metropolis that is sorely in need of raking and mowing, but the sun is shining, and all I can look at is that rhubarb.

The villains haven’t dropped their weapons, the conflicts have not all been resolved, but one stubborn plant that pushed its way through frozen ground way before winter had subsided reminds me that there is more than one thread in my narrative.  I have reason to bake pie, to plant seeds, and to fold up my afghans.

Earlier this week when I arrived home from work, my husband said, “Before you sit down, go look at the patio.” I knew before I looked what I would find — the Adirondack chairs that my father-in-law made for us years ago had been put out after their long winter inside.

He had seen it, too: the sunshine, the rhubarb, the reason to hope. So hope we will, as we sit on our patio, faces tilted toward the sun, and we will let this season have a chance to direct our feelings about our narrative.

Psalm 27:13

I am confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Spring Thaw

It happened — Michigan thawed!

Today I went outside and looked at the flower bed where I had planted bulbs last fall and — bam! — the beginnings of daffodils and tulips were breaking the surface!  I went for a walk with my dog with nothing more than a light jacket on — no hat, no gloves, no parka! I came home and opened the windows in my kitchen and my bedroom.  Now, as I type I can hear the sounds of students chatting as they walk past, I can feel a cool breeze on my bare arms, I can smell Spring.


Now granted, if I still lived in St. Louis, I would have been writing this over a month ago, but, hey, a girl has to celebrate when she can! I will still be celebrating in July when it is merely 80 degrees here instead of the 90-100 degrees that I would have been experiencing in St. Louis.  Yes, it was a bleak and frigid winter, but we made it through!

I can’t help but think, as I observe the object lesson that is my life, that this Spring thaw is a reminder that, like the bleak and frigid winter, the other dismal seasons of life are temporary.  You know, the season you had that broken leg, or the season when you were in high school, or the season when you had three children under the age of five, or the season when you couldn’t find a job?  These seasons, like the long cold winters of Michigan, come and they go.

But we don’t always believe that.  There was a day in the middle of January when we had so much snow that even the University of Michigan cancelled classes.  It was impossible to get out of our parking lot, let alone onto the streets.  As I peered out my window at the plows desperately trying to clear paths, I couldn’t imagine a day like today when all the snow would be gone and Chester and I would be walking happily side by side.  Last year as I lay in bed, exhausted after a long day at work, I couldn’t imagine a time when I would work on a project all morning, go to lunch with a friend, take a walk with my dog, and then come home to plan a lesson for a student I would see later in the afternoon.  But that is what happened today.   Years ago as I worked through recovery from an eating disorder I couldn’t imagine being in a healthy and satisfying marriage, parenting four children, earning a Master’s degree, holding a teaching position, or becoming a grandmother. But, guys, all those things have happened.

So today, I drink in the sunshine and smell the freshness in the breeze.  I remember that Winter will come again, but it won’t last forever.  It will be followed by Spring.  Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Song of Songs 2:11

See the winter is past, the rains are over and gone;

Flowers appear on the earth, the season of singing has come.

Change is in the air


I am pretty excited about this.  Yesterday, my husband and I took our dog to the park to walk after a long winter hibernation.  We were not alone.  The paths were crowded with prisoners set free from the bondage of subzero temperatures.  We sprung the clock forward and were launched into spring, or so it seems.

My husband announced this morning, “I packed my winter coat away.”  I walked across campus in just jeans and a sweater.  The sun is shining and it looks like we’ll hit the high forties and low fifties most every day this week.  Yippee!

Spring is so hopeful.  I just know that under the thick crust of snow, some daffodils are waking up and thinking about breaking the surface of the soil.  As the dingy whiteness melts into the river, fresh green grass will sprout and blanket the yard outside our home. It’ll be fresh and new.

I could use a little ‘new’.  Could you?

Some friends and I are meeting once a week to talk about turning, repenting, resting, renewing, and re-setting. It’s a pretty Lutheran/Lenten thing to do, really.  We start with Ash Wednesday acknowledging that “dust we are and to dust we shall return.”  We enter the Lenten season contemplatively, acknowledging the truth about ourselves and admitting — “I’m getting it all wrong.” So, these friends and I are really opening ourselves up to one another and inviting one another to ask, “How can I turn from this? How can I rest in this? How can I be renewed? How can I re-set?”

I didn’t really give anything up for Lent, but the addition of this weekly community of confession — of agreeing with one another that we don’t have it all figured out — has provided a space for me to be ok with my insufficiencies, to openly admit that I am a work in progress.

Now that may not be revolutionary for you, but for me it’s a space that I haven’t always allowed myself. I have spent a lot of energy over the years thinking I was right, justifying my actions, and plowing over (or simply ignoring) those who didn’t agree with me.

I mean, as long as I’m confessing, why hold back, right?

Over the years in my classroom, I often taught my students that “anybody can change.”  This was one of my many “mini-sermons” I gave to teach life lessons.  I would give the “anybody can change” sermon when students were annoyed with coaches, other teachers, each other, or their parents.  I would say, if we expect that people will never change, we don’t allow them the space to make changes.  I sometimes cited as an example a former student who prided himself on being the class clown.  He disrupted almost every class he attended and found himself meeting with the Admissions Review Board on more than one occasion.  We would say, “You are a natural born leader.  Please, use that power for good!  Lead your peers positively, not negatively.” For four years, we encouraged this student to change.  For four years we believed he could.  Yet, as he walked across the stage at graduation, we were still witnessing the immature disruptive student.  Three years later, the student showed up at my classroom door — shirt and tie, freshly cropped, and somewhat sheepish looking.  He wanted to let me know that he had become the captain of the football team at his university and that he had made the dean’s list.  “You were right, Mrs. Rathje.”  Anybody can change.

Now, I usually tell that story to point out the fact that anybody can change, but also to show what an amazing teacher I am — see what an impact I had on that student!  But really, the object lesson is for me.

Anybody can change.  Anybody can turn.  Anybody can re-set.  Even me.

2 Corinthians 5:17

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.

The old has passed away; behold the new has come.