I’m going to start this off by acknowledging that quarantine/isolation has been insanely hard on most of us, and I’m no Pollyanna. I have heard many painful stories from friends, and I’m living my own. In the midst of this, it’s often difficult to find anything good or hopeful. A year ago I heard Stephen Colbert say, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” That quote resonated with me deeply. I still believe it, but sometimes lately it feels more like mockery than redemption.
Sometimes I have faith that God will send a better day. Sometimes I think God is giving me strength to help bring about that day. And sometimes I am so disillusioned and filled with despair that I doubt God’s goodness and love.
But it is not true that this time has been unremittingly negative. Stars flicker through the clouds. Sometimes I don’t even have to peer too hard to see them.
Nature. In nature, I experience a God who is creative and whimsical, joyful and charmed with delight, attuned to details. My day-to-day God often seems coldly silent in the face of my biggest fears and deepest longings, but when I stand in a cloud of butterflies or watch a baby skink scamper through grass or stand amid towering pines looking beyond at the sky, I can believe I am part of something beautiful, something stronger than my fear and pain, something worth sticking around for.
Last year, I began swapping out some gym days for walks in the park. I discovered that while hitting a heavy bag was one form of therapy, being outside was another. When the gym closed in April, I decided to also check out the greenway trail and discovered another beautiful setting in which to stay fit while immersing myself in nature. Yesterday, the dog and I paused to watch a snapping turtle thrash through a creek and then glide into deeper waters — a sight that refreshed and comforted me. Forests and swamps are my sanctuaries.
Online events. I’ve never been a fan of podcasts, and I would rather dig out a splinter with a dull fork than endure a TED Talk. So when I saw that the Decatur Book Festival was offering all of their programming online this year, I felt trepidation but signed up for several author events anyway. And y’all, those have been amazing. I got to hear from authors I would never have encountered otherwise, as well as some I’ve long admired, and their words have been powerful and inspiring, painful and sometimes despairing, but they all enforce for me how much writing matters.
Relationships. Quarantine has strained some friendships, but it’s strengthened others. One person I hadn’t seen much in awhile, because our lives had taken us in different directions, started checking in via text, and now we talk frequently. Another has a knack for knowing exactly when I need to FaceTime. Another drives two hours every month for a socially distanced, outdoor lunch. Another shared some very personal struggles at a time when I needed to hear I wasn’t the only one pushed to the limit. Still another, whom I haven’t seen in years, suggested a weekend meet halfway between our homes. I even made a new friend via an international pen pal site — someone with whom I’ve enjoyed thoughtful, deep, wide-ranging discussions about our different cultures and their approaches to religion and spirituality.
When my mom mentioned to her sister that I was struggling with loneliness, my aunt said I could call any time. Over the summer, we had lunch and hiked and sat on her patio chatting; now we talk every week, and I treasure this relationship that might never have developed otherwise. Which leads me to…
Time with family. My summer class was cancelled because of COVID-19, and with most of my friends isolating, there was no reason to stay in Georgia. So I was able to spend almost three months with my family in Colorado, a reprieve that probably saved my life.
Since driving across country alone with animals in hot weather is challenging, my dad flew out to accompany me. We had fun — stopped for a brief, socially distanced visited with a cousin I hadn’t seen in years; saw the Great Smoky Mountains; marveled at the kitsch extravaganza that is Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; traced variations in roadside geology as we drove west. In the midst of loss and isolation and unrest, that trip was a relaxing, pleasant time with my dad, a memory I’ll always treasure. And I realize I’m incredibly fortunate to have a family willing and able to host me and my critters for months.
The summer was a perfect blend of companionship and solitude: camping trips; hiking excursions; practicing my new cooking skills on my parents and aunt; cut-throat Scrabble with my dad; cut-throat soccer with my nephews; zoo day with my niece; thrifting with my mom and sister-in-law; and visits to my family’s land in the mountains, where Rufus, my rescue dog who’s usually terrified of new places, trotted happily off to explore and even chased a jackrabbit up the slope. I also stayed in a century-old farmhouse, where I had a terrifying experience involving a haunted Jeep (or some electrical shorts during a lightning storm) and dug a trapped goat out from under a shed wall. I also discovered a beautiful trail that led not just to a riverbank but to the idea for a novel.
New animal friends. So many schools have had to transition back to online learning that none of us thought I’d be in Georgia for the whole of fall semester. So my parents kindly agreed to let Rufus stay with them on the assumption that I’d be back in Colorado soon; there was no reason to haul him halfway across the country twice. And by all accounts he’s being colossally spoiled right now. But when I got back here, I missed having a dog. I missed it so much that I contacted a local rescue about fostering, which brought this guy into my life:
Last night I was sitting on a hillside watching the sunset while the dog rubbed his face all over the grass. Then he rolled onto his back and wriggled around, and when he began to slide down the hill he thought it was so fun that he did it again: righted himself, took a running start, flipped onto his back, and slid. Over and over. I needed to see that pure joy and delight.
I overthink. Animals know how to be. Which leads to my final gift…
Living in the moment. I understand the concept of mindfulness, but I’ve never bought into it. Why should I focus on being present in a moment that is full of knives scratching at my soul? (Yes, I am the queen of melodramatic metaphors.) But this period of time is forcing me to live in the moment in ways I never have before. I’ve always focused on the future, when hopefully things will be better.
But that better future is not guaranteed; it feels less likely now than it ever has. I have chosen to leave my job in May, and while this decision has carried peace and relief, the next step isn’t clear. We don’t know when a vaccine will be widely available or how much of “normal” life will return. Regardless of who wins the election, it seems certain that there will be further violence. I no longer believe that the better angels of our nature will prevail; I’m not sure how many of us have better angels. And I understand that this disquiet, so new to me, has been a daily part of life for many Americans throughout the history of the United States, and the intrusiveness of the collective, existential distress is itself a marker of my privilege. The discomfort is part of the price I must pay if I am to acknowledge injustice and work for change. But understanding that doesn’t make it easier to embrace.
My aunt said maybe one of the lessons for me, in this moment, is to learn to trust God. This has always been a fraught concept, because my idea of God has been shaped by trauma, betrayal, and Christians. I know far too many who are more concerned with gaining an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice than with admitting that the deep wounds of racial injustice are genuine, who are more invested in “socking it to the leftists” than in loving neighbors who disagree with them, and who are more focused on making sure they have fresh flowers in the sanctuary than with making welcome the human souls who have not found sanctuary within the church.
But I’m trying to breathe. I’m paying attention to flowers and butterflies. Savoring the affection and joy of this quirky dog, the support of friends, the comfort of family. Sometimes God glimmers through my doubts. Sometimes the gifts are enough to carry me for a little while.