Miracles in the year of pandemic

// Spring //

They said we were experiencing a pandemic. They said that we’d be under stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. They said “don’t be afraid” but people were hoarding toilet paper and Lysol and it all seemed very apocalyptic, like a scene from Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven.

My husband tracked rising case numbers in an excel spreadsheet, while I coped by doom-scrolling doing downward dogs in the living room. Sleep came in fits and starts, and my appetite diminished. News of the coronavirus consumed us.

Yet, alongside my looping worry of “Would we be okay?” a peculiar thought arose: this sudden pause made me happy. I even declared to our preschooler that we were on a “staycation.” (Ha! An older, wiser Erin is shaking her head.) Five days a week, since he turned three months old, life was: rush out the door to daycare, rush from work to daycare pick up, rush through dinner to playtime, rush through bath time to bedtime. Rush. Rush. Rush. Rush.

I’d longed to be the kind of mom who was present and unhurried. 

In the year of pandemic, we could linger in bed on a Tuesday morning and discuss our dreams. Stay in our pajamas. Savor juicy blueberry pancakes and the view outside our bay window. Beyond the glass is a tree I never used to notice — red pinpricks fleck its branches in early spring before becoming pale green buds that unfurl into cream-colored blossoms.

My son Jack blossomed, too. He’d begun counting and recognizing letters. Snuggled under his comforter, he told epic bedtime tales of imaginary treasure hunts, races and rescue missions. Jack traded his red balance bike for an orange “big boy bike” with training wheels. He adored dancing. Together we’d twirl around the living room, accompanied by “Into the Unknown” and other songs from the Frozen 2 soundtrack. 

I witnessed it all. Miracle.

// Summer //

People picked up a plethora of pandemic pastimes: baking bread, cross stitch, watching Tiger King. (Remember that?!)

I started walking.

First as a means of self-care, an activity my therapist suggested I try to manage my anxiety. In the beginning, I took short bouts around the block with my dog Gus, usually over lunch or after dinner.

As the days warmed and lengthened, I began leaving Gus behind to explore the trail that edges our neighborhood. (A pug, he can’t handle much heat or distance.) I wanted to know where the path ended, and if I had the stamina to reach it. I wanted to see how far my legs could carry me.

The habit gelled. I came to crave the rhythm of my soles touching ground, my breath rising and falling, an inner stillness earned in the midst of motion. The kaleidoscope of wildflowers skirting the path, Northwest Chicago’s deer gracing me with their presence, other walkers on the trail. Open sky, open path, open heart. Walking became a form of prayer.

One summer night, reeling from the news, I walked and walked until I finally reached the path’s end. An OnBeing episode featuring author Jason Reynolds flooded my earbuds as I stood and surveyed a nearby baseball field. That dusty, empty field looked like it had been deprived of care for ages.

Black Lives Matter protests had erupted across the country and world after a white police officer suffocated George Floyd by pressing his knee on George’s neck for eight minutes and 15 seconds. George, a Black man, cried out for air, cried out for his mother, but was shown no mercy. Even typing this now I want to wretch.

Jason said, “Black folks have a right to have a conscious rage. … If you are a Black person who is conscious in America, then you are basically living in a state of anger.” His words washed over me as I stood outside that crappy baseball field and wept for our broken country. “How long, O Lord?” the psalmist cries. I cry too.

My feet drug as I trudged toward home. I had miles to walk and little drive to keep going. Up ahead, I spied a cloud of insects shimmering in the sunset. I veered off the path to investigate.

Ah, dragonflies! I couldn’t help but smile. I marveled at their circular dance and brilliant shine, even catching the eye of a fellow pilgrim on the path who’d stopped to watch. We shook our heads together in wonder.

In a chapter of Bittersweet, Shauna Niequist offers a meditation on the Celtic concept of “thin places.” A thin place is where the sacred and ordinary intersect, where the line between heaven and earth blurs. She wrote, “When we find a thin place, anytime, anywhere, we should live differently in the face of it, because if we don’t we miss some of the best moments that life with God has to offer us.”

It was a miraculous and biblical thing, those dragonflies soaring in the sun, lifting my heart, reminding me of God’s goodness. A thin place. A salient sign of beauty amid brokenness.

// Winter //

I was having a down day, one of those days when you move through life’s motions as if you’re a zombie. I needed a nap, and maybe some Advil for my throbbing headache. During December, it feels near sacrilegious to admit you’re hurting. But I was hurting. 

Christmas had come and gone, a quiet day mixed with joy and grief. We rejoiced over Jack’s delight as he opened presents. We grieved memories missed with extended family due to the pandemic. I’d just turned 35, a bittersweet day during which I reflected on two unrealized dreams: I longed for another baby. I longed for a book deal. Achieving both was taking much more time than I’d expected, and it felt as if both dreams might slip out of reach. If we ever conceived again, I’d have a “geriatric” pregnancy. And the writing workshop I did earlier that month, the one I hoped would advance my work in progress, had deflated my confidence as a writer. I felt lost. 

On that down day, I bundled up in my heavy coat and returned to the trail I’d grown to love. Clumps of snow and ice had infiltrated the barren forest, and the trail was a bit… slimy. With each mud-caked step, I attempted to untangle my thoughts.

In two of the three essays I’d brought to this workshop, the leader noted that it wasn’t clear to the reader if the narrator was okay. “Readers need to know their narrator is going to be okay,” she said. “I can tell she’s okay in this piece, but not the others.”

Those essays I wrote touch on dark seasons of the soul. Even re-reading them in the workshop made me agitated. I wasn’t sure if I, the author, let alone the narrator, had recovered from the trauma. I asked myself why I was writing this book.

I had reached a dead end. Ice-glazed trees shot up from a massive frozen puddle. There was no way around – too much ice. I needed to retrace my steps. Walking home, I recalled that I had written through these difficult times – a disorder, family illness, a faith crisis – to heal and to uncover hope. I wanted to write the book I needed during those seasons so it might bless someone else who needed it. Goodness grew in the darkness, I knew, I just needed more time to dig for it.

When you exit the trail that edges our neighborhood, there’s a gravely old road that leads you to the place where the sidewalk begins. Nearby you’ll find a lone old-fashioned light post, reminiscent of the world of Narnia, on a meticulous patch of lawn. The sight is a marker that home is near.

Is the narrator okay?

After I took up walking, I called it my escape. Most often I was escaping the house, the crushing exhaustion of working and parenting for months on end without outside assistance. Other times I escaped a deluge of deadlines or news of another tragedy. On the path I felt free, powerful and a little wild, like the fawn I spotted crossing into prairie grass one summer afternoon. She was so sure of herself and peaceful.

A block away from home, I increased my pace. In a couple minutes, I would walk in the door, shed my coat and be greeted by Jack and my husband. Jack would abandon his Magna-Tiles, hug me and invite me to dance. We’d turn on “Into the Unknown” once again and twirl until we were dizzy. Later, I’d return to the page, hunting for hope and beauty. I would not abandon the book, or my dreams of another baby. I would keep trying. I would be okay. The narrator is okay.

Maybe walking wasn’t so much an escape as it was a return. What was I returning to? Creation, of course. A semblance of community. Peace and quiet. Deep questions that niggled me. My faith. Myself.