I used to have these night terrors as a child, and even occasionally through college. I would be half awake, struggling to break fully free of sleep, but find myself paralyzed. I would push, and strain, and try to scream, afraid that if I stopped, I would fall backward into a state from which I would never come back. Eventually, I would wake up.
That’s what this current state of suspended animation feels like. I’m pushing, straining, trying to get to the end. Accepting parts of this would be easy…always being virtual, the end of busyness, staying “safe.” Just assimilate, stop fighting. But, while I’m discovering that placing such a high value on busyness was wrong…that I had become the person I had never wanted to be…so is giving into the throes of despair, a darkness from which one cannot awaken.
Eventually, we will wake up. We will. And there will be sunlight. There will be joy in the morning.
I’ve been intending to put down some thoughts here about this pandemic gripping our world for a few weeks. The problem is that, as it has kept evolving so rapidly, I feel as though I can’t keep my thoughts straight. What I think I know today I suddenly don’t know tomorrow, and the intellectual jostling and resulting emotional whiplash has been difficult enough to manage internally, to say nothing of writing anything that’s remotely coherent.
That said, there’s a theme that I’ve seen, a through-line that’s been pervasive from the last week of February until now, and it’s a concerning one. Everyone is terrified.
The first two weeks of March, Karen and I were with my parents to see them through an important medical procedure. When we left for the trip, the dreaded pandemic was confined to the West coast…troubling news in the paper, but not impactful to us otherwise. The area in which my parents live was among the last in the country to have anyone test positive. There is some providence in the fact that we were essentially self-quarantined just by being there for two weeks. A week before our return trip, Boston experienced its first surge, but the town in which we live was free of cases. By the time we returned, restrictions were beginning to be put into place, but by that time, the underlying mood was already at a fever pitch.
As Karen and I were leaving the town in which my parents live, we stopped for gas, to find that there was none. Just as everyone was running on grocery stores for toilet paper (a topic of its own), in that town, everyone was running on gas. We finally located a station that wasn’t sold out, an older station in which I couldn’t pay at the pump. I went inside and conversationally asked the cashier if they had been this busy all day. She affirmed that business had been crazy. I commented that we were leaving for our road trip home, and I hoped that this wouldn’t be common everywhere (my overactive imagination was painting apocalyptic scenarios of being stranded by the roadside on a desolate interstate with no fuel and no one venturing out to come to our aid for fear of some Andromeda Strain). She responded, “I just hope you don’t have to through one of those states that are closing their borders! Some of them aren’t letting anyone in or out. I heard we’re going to start doing that soon.”
I’m going to be honest…by the time I returned to the car, I was a nervous wreck from hearing this (remember my aforementioned imagination). Karen and I talked it through for a moment. Were a state to do this, the amount of police and military presence required to seal a border entirely from its neighbors would be unsustainable. We decided that this was unlikely at worst, impossible at best, and, though we kept NPR’s hourly updates streaming on the drive, went on with the trip.
That gas station attendant, while meaning well and having no malicious intent, had succumbed to, and was disseminating, the fear that was beginning to grip the country. She was paying it forward, and not in a good way.
Fear is a poison. Its presence brings a toxicity to all that it touches. It drives people to purchase toilet paper, despite the absence of a logical reason for doing so (nowhere in the dreaded virus’ symptoms are diarrhea). It also spreads with a voracity unmatched by any virus. Quickly, it seeps into decision making, and there is an inversely proportional decline in the quality of those decisions when it does. Because a lack of ability to engage in critical thinking is also pervasive in our culture, the popularity of those decisions become mainstream, resulting in pressure on others to conform, resulting in blanket political decisions that do harm.
Regardless of where you stand on steps being taken or opportunities missed to handle this pandemic, our interactions with each other (especially as they become virtual and knowing that social media is a breeding ground for rage culture and mob psychology) would do well to be dialed back a bit. Advice that is meant well (there’s a big difference between staying at home and staying inside) takes on a fervor and becomes implanted with the effectiveness of the most insidious marketing campaign with enough repetition. We lash out at each other, we spread rumors which are unvalidated, we contribute to a phobia.
When we do so, we rob each other of hope. And right now, we’re all in desperate need of a bit of a hope.
A few days ago, I read some history of how the town in which we live handled the influenza outbreak in the 1900’s. The steps that were taken then were remarkably similar to the steps that we are taking now. The difference lies primarily in scale. Yet, a favorite phrase among media professionals today is “unprecedented times.” This isn’t at all unprecedented, but rather the first occurrence in our generation of something of this magnitude. We’ve dealt with it before, we’ll deal with it now. Life will be changed, but it will go on. It just will, because that’s what life does. And yes, many will get this virus…likely most of us will. And the toll will be tragic, too painful to speak of for some, and I grieve for them.
We need to take a breath, though, a deep breath. And then, we need to each love our neighbor. And then, we need to make calm, rational decisions, even though they may be unpopular and incur Twitter-rage. If we do so, we may just get through this more quickly, and certainly with less of a scar to our collective psyche when we do.
Every boy is into cars at some point. This fact is, as they say, as American as apple pie. I wasn’t any different. When I was a boy, the popular choice was Hot Wheels, which, until writing this, I had no idea were still such a big deal. And, though I would soon move on to action figures and comic books by the time I was leaving elementary school, I still managed to put together a decent collection of toy cars.
Eventually, my parents bought a collector’s case in which I could store these cars (they were likely tired of always finding them underfoot). That case returned with me after last summer’s vacation, and our kids have quite enjoyed giving the cars contained within a second life. Last week, our oldest, ever inventive, strung a rubber band between the legs of a dining room chair and discovered that she could launch the cars to spectacular effect. She couldn’t wait to show me, and I was immediately enthralled in the game. I was fascinated by how these cars, long dormant until a few months ago, could still roll with such speed, and I have much respect for the fact that they were built well enough to still withstand the collisions and blows that come with serious play. They just don’t make them like that anymore (said every Dad ever).
One of the cars that my daughter pulled out was a Bell Systems van, modeled after the vans that workers of the regional “Baby Bell” phone company drove in our area. My father retired from “the phone company.” When I was little, he bought me that toy van because it was identical to the one that he drove for work every day. I had forgotten how we had bonded over “racing cars” in my childhood, which proved to be so important for our relationship as I think that Dad struggled to relate to my later interests. I recall one Christmas morning racing cars around the toy track that I had opened that morning, surprised later as my Dad played back the audio of the morning on a cassette tape that he had made with his new stereo system. Those were different times, and so foundational to us keeping our relationship as I moved from an obsession with comic books and superheroes to music in high school, and later to writing and theatre in college. When I came home on weekends, we would still sit down and watch a basketball game together, and those car races were, I’m convinced, the reason why. They had grounded us somehow, provided a connection.
There are signs in the mundane, tiny monuments to help us recall essential and explanatory moments from our pasts. Across all of those years, that toy van helped to connect us in a very similar way that it did for my father and I. That evening, my daughter had found a tiny miracle contained within a Hot Wheels car, without even realizing that she had done so.
It’s actually been several years since I contemplated resolutions for a new year in any serious way. As I said, though, the fact that we’ve started a new decade makes this more meaningful than other new year’s. And yes, given that January is nearly over, I’m definitely late to write these down, but I’ve been thinking about them for a while. I wanted to be intentional about them, I suppose, because marking significant points in time is important. We’re prone to forget, after all.
When blogging was in its prime…I fondly we remember those days…this is the sort of thing that we would post. I think the motivation is to just put it out there, to say “this is what I’m hoping to accomplish so keep me accountable.“
Of course, I’d love to hear yours, as well.
In a nutshell, I want to work less and focus more on what’s really important this year, because I feel as though my priorities have been inverted. My faith, my family, and creative pursuits are going to receive more focus this year. So, here they are:
Finish that novel. I started it long, long ago…and was nearly finished with the rough draft when our oldest daughter was just born. I plan to have it as close to finished as possible this year.
Spend less time working and more time with my family. The kiddos are showing signs of not getting enough of me. I remember so fondly when our oldest was young, the time that I dedicated to spending with her and so carefully preserved. That’s slipped in the last few years, and I’ve never found a similar way to connect with our youngest. I hope to rectify that this year.
Place my faith first. I’ve come to the epiphany that I turn to God after attempting to resolve difficult situations myself. I want to discipline myself to turn this around this year.
Speaking of epiphanies, Karen and I realized that my favorite color is actually grey. That’s a different story, though.
I actually intended to post this prior to the new year, but the holidays were hectic and I’m only now sitting down to my keyboard. As we moved through Advent and into the Christmas season this year, I was largely oblivious to the fact that January 1 would not only roll over a new year on our calendar, but a new decade. I usually go about setting at least cursory new year’s resolutions for myself (I’m still deciding what this year’s will be)…well, except for one year when Karen and I were entirely oblivious to the fact that it was even New Year’s Eve…but a new decade seems much more significant when you think about it. Then, I read another blogger’s post in which he recapped the decade, and began thinking about just how much has occurred in our life over the course of ten years. So, inspired to do the same, here’s a glimpse into what the decade of 2010 held for us. It’s no exaggeration to say that it was life-altering.
Karen and I were “living the dream” in 2010. We were four years into our marriage, young professionals in a nice apartment in the city where we met in grad school. Karen had moved away from teaching middle and high school and was a professor, and I was writing while not in my day job in the non-profit world. We did theatre together. Not everything was perfect – not by any stretch. And certainly we were spread thin financially at times. But I look back on those days now, with the freedom and creativity that we had, and I miss them.
Our oldest daughter joined us unexpectedly in 2011. We were in labor for 24 hours prior to a C-section delivery. Our friends were praying for us, Karen’s mother came and stayed with us for nearly a month. I remember how my world changed – I literally saw things differently when Karen told me that we were expecting – and how speechless and stupid I felt when my daughter’s cries first echoed from the delivery room walls. The night before we went to the hospital, I remember sitting in our living room with Karen and her mom and reading Salinger out loud because we chose one of our daughter’s middle names from his story, “For Esme, with Love and Squalor.”
My focus shifted from writing (I still haven’t finished the novel with which I was so nearly finished when our first daughter was born) to the web. As I was pushed out of my first career as a result of legislative changes, I began to make my hobby into a living. With our daughter only just a year old, we moved to New England so that I could return to school in Boston. We had determined that there are two types of education: really cool education in things that matter, and education that earns a living. We both had a lot of the first, not as much of the second. The goal was to remedy that situation.
One of the high points of our life in New England was a job that I had with a group that used theatre programming as a treatment modality for adolescents who were on the spectrum. I lead a team of other clinicians, and this became my ministry. I loved every second of that job…I couldn’t wait to go to work. I have missed it painfully ever since.
2014 – 2015
It was surprisingly more difficult to rebound in my new career in New England than we had anticipated. The company I was with wasn’t working out, and we needed some freedom. We packed our lives once more and moved into a house that we still owned in North Carolina. We would spend the next two years fixing up that house and getting it ready to sell while I was freelancing and Karen was teaching as an adjunct. Our daughter was just coming out of her love for Thomas the Train and moving into Wild Kratts (animals are still her fascination). These were great years for me professionally, but I lost so much focus spiritually. I longed to be as firm in my faith as I was when I was in seminary, but I was working such long weeks. My relationship with our daughter was strained during this critical time, as well. As successful as I was professionally in those years, I wish I could go back and reclaim some of that lost time.
Surprise! Our second daughter joined us unexpectedly (see a pattern here?). A highlight of this time was having both sets of parents with us, overlapping for a few days, to help with the baby, all together in our home. As stressful as it was (you’d think that we would have a grip on things having had one child already), having our family together was priceless. We had been praying to return to New England during this time also, and, shortly after our second daughter was born, I received a sudden offer from a company in Boston that was just what we were looking for. So, with our new daughter not quite a year old (seriously, do you see a pattern?), we packed and moved in a month, back to New England.
Along with getting used to winters here again, we also began to get some answers to our oldest daughter’s academic struggles. The diagnosis of Nonverbal Learning Disability answers so many things, but has been so difficult to absorb. We’ve entered the new decade attempting to navigate this, with all of the logistical, financial, and emotional difficulties that it brings. Before I set those New Year’s resolutions, my goal for the new decade is that our daughter is equipped with what she needs to have a successful and happy life, and that we are able to grow into being the parents that she deserves. I love that little girl so much, and previous resolutions seem so empty now….
On New Year’s eve, Karen and I watched a movie. She fell asleep on the sofa, and I poured a glass of wine and did something that I hadn’t done in many years…I watched the ball drop. I used to be into this tradition, and it seemed so flippant now. I feel my age, more weary than I should feel at times, and, to paraphrase a Wall Flowers song, I haven’t changed, but I know I’m not the same.
I hope that your new year…and your new decade…is blessed in whatever life sends your way. Who knows what adventures I’ll be able to write about in 2030? Time will tell…