I once lived in a second-story condo along a large river and if I’d had any arm strength whatsoever, it would’ve been a stone’s throw from the water. A pair of great blue herons lived within sight of what was my favorite spot—an 8×5 deck just off the dining room.
I never grew bored of sitting on that deck and I considered that small piece of real estate to be worth much of what I paid to live there. My vantage point also provided a great view when a storm was approaching. The wind would come up, the temperature would drop, and I could see the storm speeding down the river from the west. Whenever the sky turned its telltale greenish hue, I kept one ear on the weather forecast. Tornado watches (“conditions are favorable”) didn’t deter me from my spot but a nearby warning (“a tornado has been spotted”) would see me reluctantly seeking shelter.
In the basement with my neighbors once, we could hear the strong winds and what I still refer to as the civil defense siren blaring outside. When the all-clear was given, we ventured outside to find countless tree limbs down, and lawns littered with the debris of random toys, lawn chairs, and trash cans. The tornado hadn’t hit us, but the winds still did their damage.
Weathering the storm
This past year has felt a little like hunkering down in that basement. Times a thousand. Or, more wrenching, times 583,990—the number of American lives lost to COVID-19 as of this writing.
That number is unfathomable in terms of the harrowing pain it represents for so many people. By the grace of God, I don’t personally know anyone who died because of the virus.
I am incredibly privileged to have been able to work from home since March 2020. I remained physically safe inside a house with everything and more that I needed while others braved the literally dangerous elements to provide healthcare, sell gasoline, police our communities, and deliver our mail. There were countless people—farmers, truckers, millers, bakers, grocery store workers—whose jobs added up to allow me to buy a loaf of bread.
Fourteen months later we are each wandering out from our respective storm shelters, but from our own unique places of safety, and with our own unique experiences. During the time we sheltered in place, I know one person who learned to speak Portuguese, another who perfected upholstering furniture, and yet another who decluttered and organized every inch of her home. Me? I worked full-time, kept a dog and most of two plants alive, and hauled the trash to the curb every other Tuesday.
It’s so easy to look back at the entirety of the last year and see what we didn’t do. The opportunities we failed to take advantage of, the sourdough loaf we never learned to bake, the cover-to-cover Bible we didn’t read. But what each of us did in our own way was survive a storm none of us saw coming, one that left none of us unscathed. It is not a matter of going back to normal or even of finding a new normal. We are not the same people we were at the start of the pandemic, and we can’t just go back to life as we knew it. We can’t wedge ourselves back into the same puzzle, much like some of us can’t wedge ourselves back into the same jeans.
Not everyone’s personal experience was inherently negative, the unspeakable tragedy of the pandemic notwithstanding. I’ve heard some people say that the time at home has been one of increased creativity, personal growth, and renewed relationships.
But how do we know?
It’s not like we drag our “debris” around with us, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less messy. The pandemic’s mental and emotional debris is apt to be much less tangible for its survivors but no less real.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
As I venture around my community lately, I’m stunned to come upon whole new buildings that went up in the last year without me even knowing. A stop sign near my office that used to take several minutes to get through during rush hour has been replaced by a traffic light. No more needing to wait, wait, wait, and then zoom into traffic as soon as a space appears.
As we begin to reconnect with the world and those around us, you may find that all new concerns, fears, and trials have occurred for people in ways you don’t immediately recognize or understand. Rather than expect everything and everyone to go back to “normal,” what would it look like if you allowed yourself to sit in the unknown for a bit without making assumptions or trying to pick up where you left off? Instead of immediately merging back into how things used to be, maybe we could slow down, get our bearings, and ease in as time and relationships allow.
Maybe we could actually mourn the fact that things have changed. People tragically died alone, and their loved ones no less tragically grieved alone. We needn’t compare and contrast our grief; it is all worthy of being seen, respected, and honored for the sense of loss it brings to our life. Be it a prom, a housewarming party, a concert, or a wedding, let us hold space for those losses before being expected to move into the future as if they didn’t matter, as if they were just a casualty of the times.
The world I exited last March is vastly different from the one I’m reentering now. The last world contained my mom; the world I enter back into does not. How do I navigate that? How do I gather up the endless, loose pages of the last year, turn a fresh page and walk into a world where she no longer pulls into my driveway with anything from a freshly baked muffin to a book she’d heard me mention?
When in doubt, extend grace upon grace.
Remember the patient tone of voice you used the first few times to let someone know they were on mute during a virtual meeting? Yeah, it’s not quite the same after a year of it. Small moments of grace seemed easier to find when we were all first struggling to get our feet under us.
Some of us are once again struggling to get our feet under us.
Remember the person who was always so eager to get together? If that someone now seems hesitant to gather, maybe they’re having to pick up more debris than you as they navigate their way back into the world.
Psychologist and author Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
Maybe along the way, we could commit to supporting each other as we pause to gather up our debris.