It was the second week of March 2020, when our local government issued an order for lockdown amidst ominous news being reported from China, and serious statements issued by the World Health Organization. Both Canadian and international networks broadcast daunting images of Italian cities that looked like ghost towns, alongside interviews with exhausted doctors and nurses struggling with the increasing number of bodies; lives lost to a virus no one seemed to know much about.
Just the previous Sunday our church had celebrated several baptisms. My husband and I went out for dinner and a movie that weekend. The lockdown all seemed so abrupt and surreal.
With the first quarter of the year in full swing, March announced busy days and weeks ahead. On my calendar was a speaking event I’d had at the start of the year, and I was looking forward to a conference in the U.S. that I planned on attending with a couple of friends from Montreal. My husband had projects ahead, and we both had deadlines to meet.
The live broadcast from our local government brought the cadence of everyday city living to a screeching halt. In a matter of minutes, just a few key words forced a re-think and re-do of the foreseeable future. Mandatory. Lockdown. Global. Pandemic.
Our daily rhythm of traffic no longer made sense. Our city dwelling habits became nearly obsolete. My husband’s commute by bus and metro, and my own to get to the library when I chose to work outside of our tiny apartment were in jeopardy. Public transportation was not a good idea with people often cooped up with one another in close quarters. The library soon closed. Like many corporations, my husband’s company soon transferred all their projects and meetings online.
Plans that were weeks in the making, trips that were saved up for and scheduled months in advance, were crossed off the schedule. The days on our calendar became a series of question marks.
Overnight both the comfort of a predictable routine and the jolt of adrenaline that living in a city provides were gone. Juggling the enormous reality of a plague of biblical proportions, along with the loss of daily order, I felt my life too small to address the first, and not small enough to adjust to the second. Daily order was still required, but the dangling question marks felt like too many moving pieces with no place to land.
Yet as life became smaller, we learned small things are easier to manage. So it was that laundry, taking out the garbage, and any seemingly mechanical activity one does almost in auto-pilot mode, was small enough to be comforting.
Enter the beauty of Pause, and the gift it makes possible.
We live in a minuscule apartment that is part of a larger apartment building. Our apartment is designed well enough to feel cozy for the two people who occupy it, but it can feel snug with more than two or three visitors. It has the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen or used, a small bathroom, and no room for a washer or dryer. Part of our weekly rhythm is Tuesday laundry day..
One Tuesday less ordinary than most, I started down the hall to the elevator, heading to the basement of our building where the laundry room that caters to hundreds of apartments is located.
Masked face, keys in one hand, big jug of liquid laundry soap in the other, my laundry card in my back pocket, I elbowed my door closed. With a bright blue, large Ikea bag on each shoulder, filled with our clothes and linens bundled by color and cycle, I waddled to the middle of our hallway, used the jug of Woolite to press the elevator bottom, and waited.
In a few moments I noticed my neighbour from down the hall. An elderly lady, slightly hunched over her walker—the kind that has a seat built-in and wheels on each of the four legs—she was walking slowly toward the middle of the hallway, where I stood with the Ikea bags feeling heavy on my shoulders. I’d seen her before and remembered her name from the few times our paths have crossed over the years we’ve lived here.
This time however, I felt acutely aware of her frail frame.
I’d always seen it, along with her uncanny vivacity that says my body may be breaking but my mind and spirit are solid and present. But at that moment, I saw it in the context of the news that has forced all nations of this broken and beautiful world to their proverbial if not literal knees, to battle an invisible enemy that puts some in bed for a few days and others in an early grave. My heart felt a deep pang for my neighbor. And in one moment, I saw her life inextricably part of mine. Even if it was in small ways, it was large with meaning.
At the onset of the pandemic I had knocked on the door of several elderly neighbours, including hers, to ask if they needed anything from the store, pharmacy, or bakery. We live within walking distance of all three. I go out for a slow run a few times a week and figured I could use any of those to make the trip. Save for an occasional item, all of them had made arrangements to place an order online or by phone with the local grocer. I was relieved and grateful for this first-world service.
But seeing her there, with her walk paused due to her troubled breathing, and the almost rhythmic plodding as each step was accompanied by a gentle push of her wheeled walker, my heart sank.
Now, standing there with the Ikea bag resting on each shoulder of my tiring 48-year-old body, I really saw her. It occurred to me that her physical therapist would not be coming to see her, given the circumstances. All of a sudden I wondered how she would be doing her laundry. When the elevator arrived, I ignored it. I put the bags down on the floor to rest and also to signal that I was not in a hurry, and I turned to her.
After exchanging the polite, “Hi, how are you?” I lingered. So did she. I asked about her PT. No, he would not be coming for now, due to restrictions. She was in some pain, but it was manageable. After all she’d been living with physical pain for years now.
I asked her if, beyond the occasional grocery item, there was anything she needed help with that I could do for her. I asked about laundry. “No, thank you,” she said. And then her gaze turned to the door facing the elevator. It leads to the emergency stairs and the garbage shoot. For safety reasons, the door is extremely heavy, making it hard to open. The weight of it closes it shut.
She seemed a bit uneasy but continued and finally said, “If it’s not too much bother, I may need some help with the garbage.” She sighed, a little embarrassed. “The door. It’s so heavy.”
And so we worked on devising a system all our own. To put some order to our new cooperation, I said that anytime between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. she could just place her bags outside her door and my husband or I would go get them.
Shortly after that, we realized it was actually easier for all of us to make it specific. So I told her to put out her trash on weekdays at noon and Saturdays at 4 p.m. Still, the best way that worked out for her and for us was to have her shoot me an email to give me a heads up if she’d have a bag or two on a specific day, and would noon still be OK? We loved it. Hearing from her on an ongoing basis was wonderful.
What began as simply collecting the bags she leaves just outside her door, eventually grew into a camaraderie. We exchange emails about a variety of things. She loves sports and is an avid watcher of football, basketball, and tennis. So, I’ll usually get an excited email from her around match time. It’s hilarious because the only time we watch sports in our house is during the World Cup soccer tournament, while our quiet, octogenarian widow neighbour is very much in the know of all the teams and all the scores.
The ongoing hustle and speed of life in a city, with things to do and people to see, doesn’t cater well to interruptions. Only when a world crisis forced us to halt our “normal” rhythm, did I stop long enough to recognize I didn’t know how to pause. The forced disruption caused my new friend to have new needs added to the ones she’d become self-sufficient enough to manage. We both needed to learn to ask for and give help. Pause helped us both learn.
I needed her need for help as much as she needed our assistance. I needed her presence in my life, her stories, her life to be part of mine. In that coming together of small everyday needs, the God of the universe manifests his holy presence. We become his hands and feet, yes. But he also meets us in the eyes of a stranger, now more friend than neighbour.
The word selah, appearing more than 70 times in the psalms, is said to be a musical notation. It is found tucked several times in the middle and throughout many psalms. It’s a Hebrew term meaning “to lift or exult,” meant to call the reader to pause and meditate on God. To worship. The word produces an intermission between stanzas as one reads through a psalm.
Human life with its unpredictable twists and turns is more poem or lyric than equation or formula.The pandemic was a violent disruption to what we called normal. It slowed down my life enough to notice its real size.
My life is small. My need for God isn’t. A mandatory pause brought by a mandatory lockdown, brought that truth closer through a neighbour who needed me as much as we needed her. Life on hold for a whole year. Interrupted. But part of God’s holy work of remaking us into his likeness.
Image by Debby Hudson on Unsplash