This weekend, we reached another terrible threshold. The death toll in the United States has passed 200,000 people who have died from COVID-19. 200,000 families torn apart. 200,000 patients whom healthcare officials have tried to help.
If you didn’t know that we had reached this monumental number, it’s because there is so much to distract us. There is still school and work and college football to keep us occupied. Already you can see the seasonal displays in stores and on social media feeds. Everything that is trying to make us think that life is semi-normal.
But it’s not normal for 200,000 to die in six months in our country. It’s not normal to not talk about that. It’s not normal for us all to feel that collective grief and not have a place to talk about that weight and why doing simple things seems so difficult.
200,000 is a number difficult to comprehend.
Two hundred thousand deaths is akin to losing the entire population of Salt Lake City or Montgomery, Ala. — a devastation.
We’ve lost the equivalent of whole cities. We’ve lost entire families to COVID-19. Whether we actively think about the deaths or not, we can feel it. We can feel the suffering of people deep within us. We may try to distract ourselves and our minds. We may try to numb ourselves from this reality, but deep within us, we know that there are other humans suffering.
The question is how will this knowing change us?
This past week the lectionary came from Romans and it talked about loving our neighbor, a concept that we most often associate with the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospel. What struck me about this instruction in Romans is that it comes after the reminder in Romans 12:1-2 to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices” and to “renewing of our minds” so that we “do not conform any longer to the patterns of the world.”
Following this passage, in Romans 13 is the reminder that we are all uniquely gifted and beloved. Each of us having something important to offer the body of Christ. The mention of the body of Christ here in Romans might sound like 1 Corinthians 12 and it is similar. Here the indication is that we can’t recognize our belovedness or the unique gifts and talents we have that bring important and good things to the body of Christ.
And then and only then can we love our neighbor. Perhaps the amount of foundational and soul work that has to be done before we can get to the mindset and wholeness is what is really preventing us from loving each other deeply. We can’t love our neighbor because we haven’t renewed our minds and we are beliving the cultural language that creates us vs. them. We can’t love our neighbor because of the cultural influences of consumerism that wants us to believe that we are not enough or that we are flawed in some way that a product or service can cure.
We can’t love our neighbor because there is so much soul work to do before we can get there. There is more to the division and divisiveness that permeates our American society. There are deep soul questions, “Will my life matter?” “Am I worthy?” “Am I good?” “Am I enough?”
May God grant us the ears to hear below the surface of noise. May God grant us the heart to have compassion for those who are seeking answers to deep and important questions.
This morning our walk was different. The air was cool and the wind was gusty sending leaves changing colors whirling to the ground. This is a season of change. The inbetween-ness of summer and fall. The new routines and new schedules. The new unexpectedness of whether the morning will feel like hot and humid summer or just a little chilly.
The light is different too. It’s not the morning light of summer that promises sunburns and sweat beading down your back. It’s softer, warmer, and more welcoming. Easing into the day rather than starting the day bright and brilliant.
As we were walking on our Saturday path that leads us to a trail, the four-year-old looked at me and asked, “Mama, can we sit on that bench awhile?” I smiled. Maybe he too was noticing how things were changing. Maybe he too wanted to bask a little longer.
“Let’s do it!”
We watched the leaves whirling and twirling and laughed as hair got blown in our eyes and then back out just as quickly. We talked about the new books we had found at the Little Free Libraries along our paths. We talked about how we might have to get some of our long-sleeved clothes out. We waved at walkers and laughed at dogs chasing squirrels.
There was nothing particularly significant about our conversation except that there was time for our conversation. There was time to sit on the bench and notice and wonder. There was time to be together.
This gift of time is changing us, inviting us to slower pace, beckoning us to reconnect to each other and the world around us.
In the midst of all the changes we are experiencing and the way our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, it can be very easy to disconnect from our bodies and our souls especially. When we are constantly reacting to decisions and news because we can’t think ahead, then we move into an automatic kind of motion. Our energy becomes chaotic.
Even though there is so much uncertainty, there are ways that we can ground ourselves in our bodies and in the right now. In fact, grounding ourselves is one of the ways that we can stop our sympathetic system from firing incessantly.
Grounding is finding yourself within your body and soul. It is finding your center and holding your center. When we ground ourselves, we let go of wanting to control the things around us. Grounding also ignites our immune system and increases blood flow, something we all need right now. Grounding is reconnecting to the world around you most of the time by touch the earth with bare feet, removing any barrier between your feet and the earth.
We are disconnected from ourselves and we are disconnected from the earth.
Reconnecting ourselves to the earth reconnects us to ourselves. Reconnecting to ourselves reconnects us to each other. This is a reminder we desperately need right now.
In the midst of the global pandemic, we are feeling everything. We are hopeful and happy in one moment only to become distressed and grief-stricken the next moment. We are vacillating between emotions so frequently as we try to find equilibrium that we are exhausted, depleted, and some days even numb.
One of the things we ask in circle time every day is, “How are you feeling?” We are trying to help our four-and-half-year-old have space to express what he is feeling and know that there is space and a place for his feelings.
More and more adults are also taking the time to journal or ask themselves this simple question: “How are you feeling?” each day. Rather than reacting, taking time to reflect and track on our feelings is an important practice for our mental health.
To help counteract the negative effects of a quarantine situation, keeping a daily schedule and an emotions and activity tracker can help foster motivation, reduce stress, and may act as an anchor in helping to re-center you.
You may think, there is no time for me to add something else to my plate as I am managing and trying to balance work and family responsibilities, but using something like the chart above can allow space for us to tune into our selves, our souls, and our spirits.
This work is so important as we are intaking so much change and so much fear at such a rapid pace.
So, how are you feeling?
One of our favorite things to do as we are on our morning bike ride and walk is to find our shadows and watch how they change as we turn onto new roads and the sun rises higher. As we were walking the other morning, I found our shadows seemed to be everywhere. Their presence was prominent in a way that reminded me of all the things that we are carrying right now as we mark six months of this new life.
Tara Haelle recently wrote about this as we try to find our equilibrium:
The destruction is, for most people, invisible and ongoing. So many systems aren’t working as they normally do right now, which means radical shifts in work, school, and home life that almost none of us have experience with.
A shadow we can’t ignore. A shadow following us as we try to walk paths we thought we knew.
David Kessler, the world’s most renown voice on grief describes it this way:
Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.
A shadow of grief. Shadows of grief merging together in long and intertwining ways that make our steps heavier.
Kirsten Weir says this:
As the pandemic has evolved, people have had to confront a series of losses: The loss of a sense of safety, of social connections and personal freedoms, of jobs and financial security. Going forward, people will experience new losses we can’t yet predict.
Robert Neimeyer, PhD, the director for Portland Institute of Loss and Transition says:
We’re talking about grieving a living loss — one that keeps going and going.
A shadow that we can’t escape. A shadow that follows us wherever we go. A shadow that keeps showing up reminding us our lives have changed and our lives are changing.
And so we keep walking on the paths that we thought we knew discovering new revelations and new depths of our strength.
Going to the library has always been a part of our weekly routine. It is a place where I always found comfort and a place I knew I wanted our kids to find refuge. One of the last memories of “normal” life was a field trip to the main library branch where not only as there trees growing in the middle of the building, but the lower flower is also all for kids.
I was quick to sign up as a parent chaperone because I knew that I wanted to see our four-year-old as he took it all in. We explored books and then enjoyed a puppet show about the three little pigs while the thirteen-month-old tried to get to the puppets.
I remember sitting next to a fellow teacher who was a doctor and asking her what she thought about COVID-19. I remember being concerned, but none of us knew how much life would change and that in just a few short weeks we wouldn’t sit beside someone in a closed-in space without a mask on. I didn’t know that the idea of field trips would be something that was not a guarantee, but a logistical nightmare because of transporting kids on an enclosed bus and changing locations. I didn’t know that so many of the places that were field trip destinations would be closed to big groups.
At the end of the scheduled activities, the kids were allowed to check out books. Our four-year-old chose a book called My First Book of Girl Power, a book about superheroes and one in series from which we had checked out multiple different books. This book throughout closing school and changing schedules and not seeing our older sister became a companion and comfort. This female pastor and literacy teacher loved that he was clinging to the concept of female superheroes and a book during uncertain and unknown times.
Because libraries closed, we didn’t turn in this book until we got a notice that it was due this week…six months after our field trip and indeed the memory of a life we used to live. We turned it in with masks on at a drive-through window at a distant library branch where we were picking up our hold items, but before we did, we took a picture reminding ourselves of the field trip, this good book, and that we would be able to check it back out soon.
May we pause to remember, even when it’s painful and may we hold onto hope in superheroes and good books.
This week our morning bike ride/walk has hit a snag. As our four and half-year-old has become more adventuresome riding over bumps and stumps, he popped the chain off its track. After repairing this twice on our long Saturday path, we had to call in reinforcements. The ride in the back of Dad’s truck after he came to rescue us was worth it!
This morning while he was trying to go down and around an obstacle in the road, he ran full force into the wheel of the stroller and popped the chain again. Because we were on a path that had a bit more traffic, we couldn’t stop and repair the chain. And so he had to push the bike back home. As we were walking, we were talking about what happens when things don’t go as we planned.
“We get frustrated!” he responded.
“Yes, it is frustrating, but is it a big deal or a little deal?”
He paused for a moment thinking. “It’s a little deal.”
“That’s right. We are safe and we are together and we’ll be home a little bit later than we thought, but not so much later.”
This language of big deal and little deal is language we have used with all of our children. It’s language that asks them to think about what’s really important and what really matters.
It’s language that I’ve started to internalize too, especially during this time of homeschooling and balancing more roles and responsibilities. It’s centered me and sobered me as I reflect on the number of people who are fighting a virus that there is no known cure for and who are grieving losing someone they love who has died from this virus.
Even as it started raining on our heads, we talked about the fact that we had dry clothes and towels at home that we could change when we made it there,.
But first, we had to keep walking and keep pushing the bike.
This morning as we started out for our walk, we came across this in the bed beside our house. I had seen the hopeful signs that we might get just one more bloom before the summer ended and overnight, out it bloomed!
By the time we returned from our walk, the bloom looked just a little bit different. Can you see it? The opening of the center?
Isn’t it interesting how a little morning light can open us to the new possibilities and to receiving warmth and energy for the day? Isn’t it interesting how stopping and looking and practicing that each morning can remind us that each day is a new day?
These are disciples and practices that center and ground us reminding us that we are not alone and that we are connected to the daylilies and to the world around us. Thanks be to God for little whispers of the Divine all around us.
On Tuesday night during the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama gave a powerful speech. Most striking to me was her reference to her famous line: “When they go low, we go high.” She made an important distinction about what that truly means. She said: “Going high doesn’t mean putting on a smile and ignoring the negativity and viciousness.”
This is an important clarification and one that reminds me of the research I have been doing on toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is defined as:
toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.
Researchers have identified multiple layers of problem with this overgeneralization. By always looking on the bright side, those who practice toxic positivity are actually not allowing themselves to feel emotions that are really important. It’s not that they don’t feel those emotions, but rather that someone who has been taught to practice toxic positivity doesn’t have a place to express those deep emotions that aren’t deemed “positive.”
The results are devastating. Denying uncomfortable emotions buries those emotions deep within and can impact sleep and stress levels. When someone who practices toxic positivity denies uncomfortable emotions in their own lives, conversations with others who are going through difficult or traumatic experiences are burdened with hurtful and harmful comments like: “It will all work out. Everything is going to be ok.” Because the person practicing toxic positivity is unable to provide room for those more difficult emotions, they are unable to form real and meaningful connections with others.
I’ve heard toxic positivity invade our discussions of the pandemic in ways that attempt to suppress grief and fear and doubt. While I do believe “we are going to get through this”, I also believe there are families, communities, and professions that will never be the same because of this pandemic. We need to provide space for grief, anger, and fear. We need to not try to cover up or gloss over what we are feeling and what we are experiencing. We need to practice walking in each other’s shoes understanding that we are more connected than we are divided.