Giving Thanks in An Exceptional Year

I always prefer to focus on gratitude, yet I hadn’t been feeling it this Thanksgiving week. So I posed a question to our community via Facebook:

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wonder if you would share what uniquely 2020-related things you are thankful for?

In this exceptional year, I thought we might move beyond the typical answers: life, health, family, community. As it turns out, those answers carry exceptional significance this year. When U.S. COVID cases have reached 12.7 million and 260,000+ have died, the essential facts that we and our loved ones are alive and healthy becomes a precious truth for those who can claim it. This year has yielded a renewed awareness that we aren’t promised anything and everything can change without warning. We are learning anew to appreciate our own vitality, the breaths we inhale and exhale over minutes that become hours that become days, and the people with whom we share breathing space—especially those we trust within six feet.

Which leads us to: Family. We’re grateful not to frantically rush out the door for our commutes or carpooling children hither and thither and instead to move a little slower. To share family lunches, hearing about school in the middle of the day. To teach kids to ride a bike or overhear through the bedroom door as they sing along with the school choir. To have unexpected time with littles who grow too fast or with older children who will soon fly the nest, or those who tried and got COVID-grounded or those who’ve made a return trip with fledglings of their own. We’ve had time and space to connect and care for one another differently as we’ve all gone through the strange experiences of this year. Some increased the love under their roof by adding dogs or cats to their households.

Zoom has taught many of us that we can work remotely and it’s given us another tool to connect with family and friends in other places. Some have been holding weekly dinners or game nights via Zoom, an idea that likely wouldn’t have occurred to them before March. Who can tell how many families and friends will celebrate with a virtual Thanksgiving feast?

We are grateful for friends who make us laugh. Last spring the world witnessed Italians singing from the balconies of their homes and apartment-dwellers who held evening calisthenics each outside their own front door. As we walked our dogs, we saw socially-distanced neighbors in cul-de-sacs and on street corners enjoying a “six feet at six o’clock” cocktail hour. A local DJ held socially-distanced neighborhood dance parties. One person commented, and many chimed in, that she is grateful for the way those in our community “swarm” to help others with small or big needs; this swarm produces honey as it relieves life’s stings.

We’ve rediscovered ways to savor time, playing board games and card games with family, hiking our spectacular trail system under smoke-free skies, or dabbling in watercolor painting through a subscription art kit. Reading lots and lots of books. Developing our skills through online classes.

It seems to me that the unexpected and initially undesirable changes brought about by the pandemic initiated so much more than cleaner closets and bread baking skills. It gave us quiet in which to reflect on our priorities and lingering conversations with family and neighbors. It forced us to get creative about how we would maintain the essentials for living and it freed us to be creative in other previously neglected and also life-giving ways. It freed us to live into who we are and who we want to be.

One respondent admitted that she found my question difficult to answer since the pandemic has hit her family hard. Although I’ve never met her nor do I know the specifics of her situation, I extended sympathy. As we say, “we’re in this together,” and clearly this year has been hard…illness, death, unemployment, draining bank accounts, loneliness, mental health issues, grief on so many levels. That’s precisely why I asked the question. We know how hard it’s been, and most of us know that our mis/fortunes rest along a spectrum: we have it hard, and also easier than others. Everyone’s lives have changed…in the same and vastly different ways.

In my faith tradition we acknowledge that when you don’t have words to pray for yourself you can rest in the prayers of others. Similarly, when I couldn’t name my own gratitude, I relied on the gratitude of others. “Yes,” I repeated with each response. “Yes, me too,” I’m grateful for that, and that, and I’m grateful to hear about that small or spectacular development in your life.

And so…

A Prayer of Overflowing Gratitude During Thanksgiving Week of an Entirely Unexpected and Exceptional Year

To the One from whom all good gifts flow I whisper Thank You for life and breath and health and the reminder that we can’t take any of it for granted. For families and slow time to hike and ride bikes and learn to cook or bake or support local restaurants by eating delicious take-out food. For the particular humans I get to call “mine,” and for the shared memories and the coming moments that will be tomorrow’s memories. For board games and card games, even the video games I don’t like but over which my guys bond and burn through their frustration loudly in the garage while I quietly read a book in another room. For skin care products which matter so much more than make up and baseball caps to hide the pandemic-casualty formerly known as a hairstyle and for the comfort of lounge wear all day and night. For the enthusiastic love of our furry friends and the hours upon hours we’ve walked dogs through neighborhoods and along trails, watching the tiny and wondrous changes of the seasons. Thank you for California poppies and irises and hawkweed and thistles, roses and hydrangeas and mums, and mustard plants that grow taller than our 85-pound dog. For sunshine and clear skies and the end of fire season and for the twisting and turning of rainbow-colored autumn leaves on the trees and the ground. For the neighbors we’ve greeted from a distance and waved at through windows and conversed with on the phone or over social media or Facetime or Zoom. For books and our library system and my never-empty Kindle. For Netflix and The Queen’s Gambit and Schitt’s Creek and Disney+ and Hamilton; may Lin Manuel live to write many more plays. For creativity and its multiple expressions we might not have witnessed except for this year. For freedom and those striving for freedom for all. In this Thanksgiving week and on every day of this ridiculous year whether I feel it or not, I whisper Thank You. We say Thank You. The people shout Thank You. And so, Amen.

2020 Travel: Tahoe

A week ago I began a blog and Instagram series on 2020 Armchair Traveling: My Life in Coffee Mugs. I wrote about New York City, Norway, and the San Francisco Bay Area and on IG posted about each of these destinations as well as San Diego. This is the final post in this series…for now.

Irony: planning and posting a series about Armchair Travel in the same week that generous church folks gifted us a few days’ stay in their Lake Tahoe vacation home. Of course we went.

Before we moved from SoCal to NorCal, someone who had moved the opposite direction mentioned that soon enough we’d be vacationing in Tahoe. He might as well have said we’d be hitting up Ibiza on the regular, it sounded so unlikely. He wasn’t wrong.

I’m not a snow sports person and I mostly like to experience snow through a picture window. But I do love to hike, and camp, and we’ve done a lot of both in Tahoe. And we have several generous friends who have handed us the keys to their vacation homes for an off-season weekend away.

My favorite picture from my first Tahoe birthday in 2007

Typically my birthday, which in early November means “mud season” and low crowds – tucked in between the crowded months of summer sun seekers floating on the Truckee River and boating on the lake and winter snow seekers.

Time stretches differently on vacation. Even though we had remote work/school on Thursday and Friday, we also had time for long hikes and soaking in the hot tub. We talked more and about different topics. We created new memories.

The sounds of the trip: the “slush” of lake-front sand or sloshy snow and the “crunch” of gravel or icy snow under our feet; the occasional “wa-wa-wa-whoops!” as we slipped on ice and flailed our arms seeking upright-balance like birds flapping hard against uneven wind currents; and the haunting-hollow clarinet howl-squeak of the wind during the day it stormed.

And laughter. Lots of conversation punctuated by joyous peals of laughter.

2020 Armchair Traveling: San Francisco

This week I’m armchair traveling on my blog and Instagram to share My Life in Coffee Mugs.

I grew up in San Diego. I went away to college and eventually returned. And then we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we’ve lived for almost 15 years.

The Bay Area is where our kids grew up. They were 7 and 2 years old when we landed, so this is their home like San Diego will always be mine.

My husband used to comment that SoCal didn’t have trees, and I didn’t understand—could he not see the palm trees and eucalyptus trees, the citrus and avocado trees? Now I get it, though, since we have giant redwood trees in our own backyard. We drive three minutes to a redwood forest.

I love the natural open spaces, walking from home to scenic hiking trails. I love our walkable neighborhood and the hours I spend each week pounding the pavement with my pups.

I love the weather, that we have distinct yet not severe seasons; you can take the girl out of SoCal but she will still prefer mild year-round weather. I love real rain storms and bundling up and lighting a fire on chilly days—we can get to snow when we want to but we don’t have to shovel driveways—and I’m grateful to wear sandals most of the year.

I love our small town, and that we can be in San Francisco in short order (traffic depending), to visit the beach (Crissy Field is our favorite), Pier 39, the Ferry Building, particularly on Saturday mornings for the Farmers’ Market, Union Square during the holidays or Ghirardelli Square for, what else?, chocolate. Or we can be wine tasting in Napa in 45 minutes, or at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in less than two hours. This is the farthest I’ve lived from the beach and yet we get to the beach regularly.

Because this is where our family grew up, no matter where life may take us, the Bay Area will always also be Home.

2020 Armchair Traveling: Norway

This week I am sharing on my blog and on Instagram about My Life in Coffee Mugs. On Monday, I wrote on the blog about New York City. On Tuesday on Instagram I posted about my hometown of San Diego. Today I am blogging about Norway…

We celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with two weeks in Norway. We spent a week on the Hurtigruten, a mail delivery/cruise boat (though not the kind of cruise you typically think of), sailing along the coastline and through the fjords from Bergen to Kirkenes. The following week we flew to Oslo, took the train to Kristiansand, and then rode the train back to Bergen—arguably the most beautiful train ride in all of Europe (I can’t compare, but it was truly spectacular).

Along the way we visited my Norwegian family: my second cousins and my mom’s cousins, and we had the enormous privilege of holding a gathering in honor of my recently departed grandmother in her hometown of Lista with nine of her cousins, happy to tell stories and leaf through pictures in yellowing photo albums.

Lista Fyr, the lighthouse my grandmother considered “hers,” since this is the view from her childhood home

This wasn’t my first trip to Norway, but it was revelatory to see with adult eyes the country that grew my grandmother and my mother. Watching the cold and rugged coast drift by the Hurtigruten windows, houses improbably stuck to cliffsides, with narrow one lane roads–or no visible roads at all—I was newly impressed with the hardiness of my people.

I do not feel so hardy, rather cushy-spoiled by my SoCal upbringing, but I have renewed respect for my mom and grandma, for the stock boiled into and diluted in my blood. I differently understand their desire to be outside in all weather, their need for nature, growing things, water, green and blue–in potted plants and paintings and photographs, if that’s how they can get it.

To have a pot of coffee roasting hot from early-dark to late-night. To have tins stocked with fresh-baked cookies, and oven-fresh pastries, ready to serve to guests. To savor the aroma and relish the taste of fresh caught and cooked fish. Or to over-boil the fish and the potatoes, as well as the peas and green beans until they’re slightly gray, because high culinary status hadn’t hit Norway before they departed for the U.S.

I wouldn’t be me without my Norwegian heritage. I wonder if my siblings feel the same, or if my name, Siv, tightens my family ties. Every single time I meet someone, I have to explain my Norwegian name: “like Steve without the T,” Siv—wife of thunder god Thor—goddess of the harvest whose blonde hair waved in the wheat like the wind.

Simple and complicated. Like me.

P.S. My Norwegian cousins confirmed that, although coffee is a big deal in Norway, Starbucks is not. We bought this mug in the airport at the only Starbucks we saw.

2020 Armchair Traveling: My Life in Coffee Mugs

Along with so much else in 2020, travel has been cancelled. Good thing my coffee mugs remind me where I’ve been–exactly what Starbucks intended, right? This week, I’ll let my warm cuppa whisk me away to share a few highlights from my life.

Today is my birthday.

It’s also an ordinary Monday in an exceptionally strange year.

A year ago my family celebrated my milestone birthday in NYC. I’m not big on Big Cities, but NYC was where I wanted to wake up 50. No big party, rather a long weekend creating new memories with my loves. (Irony: we booked an AirBnB in New Jersey so I did not, in fact, wake up in NYC).

Setting aside the expected-and-unusual bumps that typically arise during travel, my last birthday was a nearly perfect day in an as-close-as-they-come perfect weekend.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kicking up crunchy fall leaves as we strolled through Central Park. The Guggenheim. A fabulous sit-down dinner (at an all-veg restaurant, so the teens would describe it differently). The Empire State Building. Gourmet ice cream to end the day.

the view from Belvedere Castle in Central Park

During our stay, we hit many of the big touristy sites–the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall (and by happy accident, Hamilton’s grave), the American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller Center, Broadway, Times Square, even Carlo’s Bakery–since we had never explored NYC as a family.

The Met was our unanimously favorite spot

But one of the highlights for me was tripping across memories of my family ties to this place:

The Fashion Institute of Technology, where my mom studied children’s clothing design at the same time Calvin Klein studied fashion.

We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, starting on the Brooklyn side where my grandma lived with my young mom and aunt during the years she worked as a cook at the General Motors Building across from Central Park. My parents met at a mutual friend’s apartment, I can’t be sure now but maybe in Brooklyn?

My grandma lived in Queens when I was very young, when my parents and I lived on Long Island. My dad flew out of LaGuardia as a pilot for Pan American Airlines; before they married, he got my mom a job as a stewardess, a job she loved–”when airlines still offered hospitality that meant something”–until she got pregnant with me.

When I chose NYC as my birthday weekend destination, I chose it to visit fun and culturally significant places as a family. I didn’t realize that it would also connect me to family members no longer able to share their own memories.

One of the many benefits of travel.

Follow me on Instagram for more coffee mug highlights!

How are you? No, really…

How are you? she asks, a simple question requiring an easy answer. But do we really have a simple answer?

I could tell her I’m tired, weary in my bones and soul. So weary that sleep plays hide and seek through the dark hours, slipping through my grasp each time I think I’ve caught it. And I understand, of course, that hide and seek was always more fun to play after dark. Still, I do all the right things: I go to bed at what they call a reasonable hour with a book soothing, not scintillating. I read until my eyes flicker and then, ready to slide down sloping fatigue into sleep, I turn out the lights. Timed to the flick of the light switch, my eyes snap open, staring into the dark interior of my sleep mask, which I now shove onto my forehead because I am instantly wide awake.

I could tell her I’m tired because, on those rare nights when I less eventfully hop aboard the sleep train, when its chugga-chugga forward motion lulls me into slumber and its choo-choo doesn’t rouse me, it speeds ahead of schedule to reach its destination before I’m rested. Or it breaks down with a screech of brakes and fire sparks of metal wheels straining on metal tracks as I am knocked meanly backward into my seat, clutching the arm rests for dear waking life, desperate for the slow-and-steady rhythm of safe passage to morning.

I could tell her I’m tired from my nightly boxing match versus my comforter, not doing its comforting job–I should spitefully call it “duvet,” or less fancy and more plain-spoken “bedspread,” or even “hot mess” except that more accurately describes me–as I fling my limbs free from the tangles of its stranglehold in search of the air flow from the oscillating fan. Until my foot or knee or elbow ice over and I yank them back to center, only to fight another round, and another, the fight cycle as endless as the fan, and the minutes on the clock, oscillating through the hours of the night.

I could tell her I’m tired from not sleeping because I’m a middle-aged hormonal woman. We could shrug and laugh and oh well meshuggenah at this sleeplessness. I could also explain that my anxious mind spins all night long through the circles of aching grief hell from the losses we have suffered this year, the loss of jobs, the loss of freedoms to be out and about at the theatres and the malls and the concerts and the parties, gathering with friends and family in countless numbers since the more the merrier was always the open invitation. The loss of travel, of vacations planned and cancelled. The loss of so much that added fun and celebration and punctuated the mundane, while the fatigue mounts from trying and flailing to sprinkle sparkle over days that recur with such similarity that we have lost the days of the week, the weeks of the month, the months of the year: I keep opening my calendar-planner to March, confused…

Pause: Let us now pause to mourn the colossal loss of the freedom to grieve through the rituals that allow and support and move us through grief. We have lost the freedom to be with our loved ones who are sick and dying; we have said our goodbyes in this life through plate-glass windows and computer screens. We have lost the freedom to hold memorial services and graveside gatherings. We have lost the freedom to gather in remembrance, for Memorial Day, 9/11, and Veteran’s Day is coming right up. We have lost, and perhaps just recently regained while perhaps to lose again, the opportunity to worship together in person, to worship and praise and lament and just be in process in this moment, side-by-side, right now.

I could tell her I’m tired from the heartbreaking loss of friendships because apparently some friends were truly occasional acquaintances and, without our regular joyful meetings in our ordinary joy-filled places, the colorful palette of our once-vibrant conversations dried, faded, flaked in the plein air breeze of months we thought would be weeks, leaving behind a faintly-hued shadow I hold tight as a memento. My gut aches and my soul quakes from the loss of friends who turned toward a different view from our place on the trail and wandered away to hike with others, new friends or those who share similarly-firm beliefs that leave us behind in the dust wondering how we could have seen things so differently when we once paced so steadily shoulder-to-shoulder?

I could tell her I’m tired of listening to and, in turn, shielding myself from the spits of anger bubbling and boiling in almost every cauldron-conversation, in person, online, on screen. The news I choose to read because the vitriol voices need no additional amplification. The pummeling lies that beat us to dust-level to sift through more and more foolishness piled up in more and more sources until, muscles sore from shoveling piles and digging mine deep, we strike a vein of truth: Eureka! Only to recognize that we will need to repeat the process, digging, sifting, digging, rinsing, hi ho hi ho, in search of diamonds and precious gems and 24 karat gold while smacking fool’s gold from foolish fingers.

I could tell her I’m tired of the ear-piecing voices that puncture the present to “get back to normal” ASAP, right this g’damn minute if not yesterday or last week already, that the restrictions meant as safeguards against which many fought and didn’t follow ever, you do you American individualism at its worst, be lifted for everyone everywhere. That theatres and malls and concerts and parties roar back to life, that workplaces open and freeways and BART trains fill up as commuters resume their daily to-and-fro trudge. That schools for students of all ages open immediately.

I could tell her I’m tired because the pandemic has worn me out, too. Just like everyone else, I’m tired of making all the meals for all the people and washing all the dishes and planning all the menus so we can stagger all the shopping trips or find ourselves again, unintentionally, offering the pet rabbit or the compost heap the produce that has gone off before we got to it. I’m tired of competing in the Pandemic WiFi Olympics with everyone under our roof and in our neighborhood on Zoom work and Zoom school all the freaking hi ho hi ho day long.

I could tell her I’m especially oh so tired of monitoring online school and emailing teachers and skirting parents who want me to agree with them, though I don’t and I can’t for the sake of my individual and particular struggling child, who likely represents more children than I or we know personally. The screech of brakes and fire sparks of metal wheels straining on metal tracks sting my ears and burn my brain as I realize that this time I’m the one throwing the brakes and I’m the one throwing my body over my child tied to the tracks as the train hurtles toward us… We’ve finally committed and settled in to our place on this track, as we thought required and necessary, and now that we’re here we discover wide-eyed that we’re stuck and left behind while others nimbly switch tracks and the train set in motion by life and pandemic and school board and caution and all those squeaky wheels might actually mow us down.

I could tell her I’m just as tired as every other K-12 parent from empathizing with the myriad losses my son has and will experience, losses common to all our kids, the games and sports practices and dances and lunchtime rallies and spirit days and concerts and plays and gallery shows and in-class support and Scouts and youth groups and parties and budding romances and old-fashioned face-to-face friendship and, oh yeah, Halloween which shouldn’t but probably will happen anyway in 2020, as this strange school year in this strange pandemic year unfolds bit by bit, a map we didn’t chart and don’t know how to follow toward a destination on which no one yet agrees.

I could tell her I’m tired of feeling anxious about a virus we can’t see and don’t understand for which there isn’t yet a vaccine–and patients in vaccine trials keep getting sick which halts vaccine trials and maintains our place in this holding pattern. I’m tired of having to think so intentionally about how to do differently all the things that once filled our days with normalcy, like a quick grocery trip on the way home from a day at the office to pick up a fresh ciabatta loaf so we can make a Tuscan pressed sandwich for dinner tonight with the fragrant basil and glorious tomatoes growing in our garden.

I could tell her I’m tired and shattered for feeling suspicious of neighbors and friends, those same shrill voices who insist that society and schools reopen, and yet I’ve heard about their summer vacations, multiple trips in fact while so many of us followed the suggested guidelines and stayed home, and I’ve seen their pictures of mask-less hugs gathered in tight for the camera on those vacations or at those restaurants that posted policies of family-only seating. Who to trust?

I want schools to open, safely. I want on-site work to resume, safely. I want stores and theatres to open, safely. I want to see friends and neighbors and family and colleagues, safely. I want “normal” life, whatever that ever meant, to resume, or our “new normal” to commence…safely.

How are you? she asks.

Tired, grieving, frustrated, sad, lonely, I could say.

Existentially and honestly, I could also answer: I am loved, safe, housed and fed, unintentionally funny yet funny nonetheless, smart and talented and engaged, creative and creatively fulfilled, thoughtful and kind and loving.

Grateful, I could say. I am all of this, and also grateful.

How are you?

Quirky and Wonder-full, YOU are the Main Character in Your Story

Think about some of your favorite TV or movie characters. What idiosyncrasies do they possess? How are they uniquely quirky? Like Moira Rose’s voice (Schitt’s Creek). Or Barney Stinson’s suits (How I Met Your Mother). Or Sheldon’s bathroom schedule (The Big Bang Theory). Or Phoebe’s off-key singing voice wailing: “Smelly cat, smelly cat, what are they feeding you?” (Friends).

What makes them weird is also what makes them funny, memorable, lovable. They are each their own character. They are eccentrically one of a kind.

And so are you.

Sometimes that inner critic’s grumpamonky voice whispers demonically at me about my quirks except instead of calling them “quirks,” which sounds fun and individual, it calls them “freakish” or “bizarre” or “cringe-worthy.” It asks why I’m so awkward, why I can’t fit in better, why I have to stand out…the thumb is sore because it got whacked with a hammer and do I really want to get hurt? Those stupid, incessant whispers make me want to shrink myself down or run and hide or steal Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

Fire the inner critic and embrace your awkward self. Wear your unconventional traits proudly like an outlandishly fun hat. Everyone smiles at the person wearing an outlandishly fun hat, but not everyone dares to wear one. Moira and Phoebe would wear the hat (Moira might call it a chapeau), and we would smile and love them for it.

Be your uniquely quirky and wonder-full self. You are filled with stardust and magic and miracles. Those things you sometimes wish weren’t part of you? Those are just more reasons for us to love you.

Cover image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

When What’s Staggering Isn’t: Seeing Sad Truths

The US has now passed the staggering statistic of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths (global deaths are approaching one million).

That’s the equivalent of:
66 days of 9/11 attacks
109 Hurricane Katrinas
Almost 1,200 Oklahoma City bombings
1,450 full commercial planes, or eight plane crashes every day of our six-month quarantine
The combined US death toll from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf

If things keep going as they have been, researchers project that another 180,000 people may die by January 1, 2021, almost double our current numbers.

Our brains aren’t wired to comprehend such big numbers, especially when we’re already tapped out by all the factors involved in this never-before experience: we’re depressed from dealing with economic uncertainty, managing work or unemployment while also navigating online school alongside our children, changes to how we do all the details of life, and a volatile upcoming election amidst social unrest.

Of course it’s a lot, and our sense of shock has dulled with each new report. Add to that the reality that many of us don’t yet know personally someone who has died as a result of COVID-19, and that traditional methods of coping with grief such as memorial services have been restricted during the pandemic, and we simply don’t know how to respond.

It’s no wonder that, in the moments when the pain and grief of this unthinkable situation to which we cannot foresee an end seeps through our vulnerable cracks, we prefer to numb out instead. We downplay it, imagining it’s not that bad, or that it won’t happen here, that it won’t affect our families or our kids’ schools.

I have been extremely cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t like wearing a mask (not that anyone does) so I’ve mostly stayed home and walked the dogs. In six months I’ve been on one restaurant patio and in two stores. My husband has done all our grocery shopping.

I’m not in a high risk group. And while being a natural rule follower partly explains my response, it occurred to me the other day that I also learned early that you can be careful and still be party to unexpected, shocking results.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

During my senior year of high school I took a Child Development class with the absolute best, wackiest teacher ever. If you remember Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus children’s educational books and TV series (voiced by the fabulous Lily Tomlin), she was just as wonderful and memorable. She intended to encourage us to expand our knowledge while also having fun and learning practical lessons, so we did a lot of role playing and simulations.

For instance, one time we pretended we were medical interns doing rounds with our attending physician (Teacher) diagnosing issues related to postpartum women and/or their babies. I’ve forgotten a lot of things I learned in high school, but when my own babies were born I recalled specific lessons from that class.

That year, 1986-87, AIDS was taking center stage among major health issues, and our teacher organized a simulation to help us see up close something that felt remote to us. Because our class consisted primarily of young women, she invited the men’s choral group that met during the same hour to join us – which heightened the fun factor for sure.

We all received a slip of paper with a number on it and instructions to stand up, mingle, and exchange numbers with people we “liked.” We each wrote the other’s number on our paper to effectively contact trace, though we wouldn’t have known to call it that.

We pretended to be college students at a party deciding who we would hook up with. Insightful teacher that she was, she anticipated that the good little church girl would be disinclined to swap numbers, so she specified that everyone had to exchange numbers at least once. Unbeknownst to me, she also designated me Patient Zero, a recipient of bad blood.

Within the simulation, my one-time number swap led to a substantial percentage of my classmates becoming “infected” with AIDS – at that time a certain death sentence that also carried significant social stigma. Something inside me crumbled as I looked around to see how many people would have died because of me had this been a real scenario; I wasn’t the only one stunned to silence for the rest of the day. Her experiment created a vivid picture of how quickly diseases might transmit even when we’re careful.

Our actions have consequences. Even as I stay home to mitigate risk, I realize that I’m still not safe. That one patio meal might have been the place and time that I contracted COVID-19. Today’s trip to Costco might be the place and time that my husband is exposed. Though we may be careful to lessen the probabilities, no matter what we do, we can’t prevent all risk – nor would we want to. Risk remains a necessary part of life, and some risks are absolutely worth it. We have to live, after all.

Still, as this pandemic pause continues, I maintain my commitment to caution – to stay home as much as possible, to wear a mask, to avoid crowds, and to exercise good hygiene – because if I, if we, do become exposed, I don’t want to give it to you. I never want to be Patient Zero again.

Note: I cited several articles in this post and particularly recommend the article from National Geographic on why our minds don’t compute these staggering numbers and how we can remain sensitive.

Cover image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Clinging to Trust as a Lifeline

Four years ago I stopped watching the news. For most of my adult life, I had been in the habit of watching at least the first twelve minutes of the 10 o’clock news before getting ready for bed. Until I realized that images from the news creeped into my dreams, resulting in fitful sleep and occasional nightmares. The volatility of the world, the anger and division in our country, and local crime combined to inflict tiny paper cuts in my heart, each more shivery-painful than the next.

I began reading the news instead, looking to various sources in order to get a fuller picture than any one outlet would present. A simple change, and it helped in many ways: better sleep, better informed, less heartache.

Four years ago the world seemed in a bad way. Four years later, it’s inconceivable. What simple change can I make now that will prove as helpful?

image by Morgan Harper Nichols

I’m clinging to TRUST, my one-word lifeline as this year keeps dishing up bad news like overcooked casseroles at a church potluck: think green bean casserole, iguana green, limp and milky. In so many ways 2020 has been gross like that.

So, trust. I trust that there will always be moments of beauty, no matter what, like flowers blooming in sidewalk cracks. I trust that if we look for beauty, we will find it. Mr. Rogers taught us to look for the helpers. From now on, let’s trust that we will find ways to be the helpers.

I trust that God is still in control on bad days as well as good. I trust that God loves me, and you, and the whole wide world He made and redeemed and is redeeming – the latter being work in which we get to participate.

In just 45 days, we have the opportunity to make a difference. I want to trust that Americans are going to show up to do the right thing, to elect leaders who exhibit compassion and common decency, and who above all will consider the needs of all of their constituents and not just those who possess wealth and power.

As RGB modeled for us, we get to fight well – not scrappy-mean, but with dignity intact on every side – for things that matter. Hildegard tells us that we will “rise vigorously” toward justice for the things we love.

Watching the news hurts my heart because I love my community and my country. I love this fantastically diverse planet and its diverse inhabitants. I believe we can be better and do better. We need to take a collective deep breath, hold our tongues, open our ears, and for God’s sake, take our fingers off the trigger. We can choose to breathe out animosity and breathe in love…and more and more love. I trust we can if we try.

It Takes Courage to See Eye-to-Eye

In this fast-spinning gyroscopic world, society clings to hard-and-fast categories.

Black or white
Red or blue
Foreigner or citizen
Us or them

Categories give us a handhold to grip, something to steady us as we try to make sense in the dizziness. These days, we’re holding on for dear life.

Not for their dear lives, mind you, but for our own.

We should recognize, though we often don’t, that people don’t precisely fit into categories. Individuals fit into multiple categories all at once. We are all of us out-of-the-box, bursting through barriers, blurring the edges. No one neatly fits the stereotypes. Labels itch in the wearing; the only accurate one-size-fits-all = HUMAN BEING.

It takes courage to look into someone’s eyes and see them for who they are rather than who you think they should be. Face to face, eye to eye.

We say “eye to eye” to describe our agreements, when we and others see issues from the same perspective. But how often do we actually look someone in the eyes? Especially someone with a different background, or someone with whom we disagree, or a stranger?

How long do you think you could sustain eye contact with anyone, even a loved one?

A 2016 study at Stony Brook University discovered that four minutes of sustained eye contact increases intimacy. Amnesty International recreated the study in Germany, arranging strangers, many of them recent immigrants, seated across from native Europeans. The results feel tangible. I dare you to watch it without emotion.

I asked my husband to sustain eye contact with me. I set a timer on my phone and for four minutes we sat facing each other on the edge of the bed. Even after almost three decades of marriage, those four minutes felt strangely, uniquely, intense. I chattered like a talkative preschooler almost the whole time (I didn’t read any rules about not talking, and I couldn’t help myself). Even with the safest, most loving person in my life, it took uncommon courage to intentionally look into his eyes.

No wonder we prefer categories, boxes, stereotypes. Eye contact fosters intimacy and intimacy requires courage. Intimacy requires more from us; it might ask us to change.

Most of us prefer to view others from a safe distance. These days, that distance has gotten wider, so much greater than our newly-required six feet. We’ve physically and emotionally entrenched ourselves…and others.

Obviously it would break all social norms to recreate this study throughout our days with each person we encounter. Talk about awkward.

But what might change if we made it a point to always look people in the eyes?
What might we do differently, practically during these days of pandemic panic, to increasingly look through the eyes of others?
How might our perspective change, shift, alter?
How might we see others, and the space of the planet they inhabit, differently?

In movies I’ve heard the battlefield order, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!” In other words, don’t react too early. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we all put down our weapons and looked into the eyes of those we suppose to be our enemies?

Brene Brown continues to remind us, “Courage is contagious.” It seems to me, especially now in this increasingly divided world, that contagious courage is exactly the virus we need to spread.

In the comments, share one practical way you have or will look someone in the eyes. Let’s enCOURAGE each other!

This is Day 3 of a 7 Day Writing Challenge with Hope*Writers. Follow me on Instagram for more.

Cover image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay