When I drove back to Georgia in August, I spent long hours in the car having serious talks with God, grappling with why I needed to return here. I was ready to not be in this place, this career, this phase of life, anymore. Last spring’s quarantine was lonely and brutal. It resurrected demons I thought I’d conquered. Temptations I believed I’d left behind. Loneliness and absence that I hoped God’s love would fill.
Summer brought a reprieve: three months in Colorado with family. Whenever I wanted a hug, someone was there to offer it. There were friendly hikes and good conversations, shopping excursions (including one to find the Western attire my nephews and niece insisted I needed), dad jokes, camping trips, family dinners. Given the COVID-19 situation, we weren’t careless, but there was a collective decision that companionship and hugs were worth the risk of exposure.
As the summer drew to an end, I came increasingly to dread returning to Georgia, revisiting the scene of that very painful and difficult spring. What if I still felt so isolated? What if my town was still torn between people who refused to take any precautions and those who remained in self-imposed quarantine? What if I couldn’t find opportunities for human contact?
I convinced myself to come back mostly because I was sure there was an expiration date on my time here. Everyone expected that we would pivot to online instruction within a few weeks, and I planned to head back out West as soon as that happened. And in the meantime I thought there was some kind of purpose I had to fulfill here. I thought God would somehow use my return for healing or reconciliation or forgiveness or grace. I thought I would find love and peace and connection. Somehow.
Today marks two months to the day since I drove through hilly western Georgia in a rainstorm, then past lowland swamps and cotton fields to my own home. Being here has turned out to be even harder than I expected, and I’m wondering how to survive. Quit my job halfway through the academic year? That would not only break my contract but cause significant hardship for colleagues. But how do I endure another semester of this? I don’t know. I don’t even know how I’ll get through the next month.
Professionally, yesterday was the worst day of a rocky semester. I ugly-cried in my office between classes. I’m hearing similar stories from colleagues. We don’t know how to do our jobs at all, let alone do them well, in this environment.
But I have one friend who drives two hours round trip to have lunch with me every month. We wear masks, but we also hug. We sit outside and catch up on each other’s lives and reminisce about all the experiences we’ve shared in the almost twenty years we’ve known each other: the time she drove me to urgent care after my pet python bit me; the time she sliced her finger chopping carrots on Thanksgiving morning and had to go to the ER for stitches, and we ended up eating a late dinner — without carrots. Easter egg hunts, Meerkat Manor, Girl Scout cookies.
Her visits are oases of normalcy in this abyss.
Otherwise, I go to work, then I come home. I go to the grocery store and the pet store and never see anyone I know. I walk the dog at the park, and we recognize a few of the regulars and smile at each other, but no one speaks more than to exchange brief greetings. Last week a maintenance guy came to replace my broken disposal, and as he worked, we chatted about dogs and his girlfriend and books. Only after he left did I realize how long it had been since I’d had that kind of conversation — friendly, open, relaxed, normal — with a stranger and just how badly I’d needed it.
I spent a lot of years hiding from people, from engagement. I built a fortress of books, and I’m trying hard not to make that the place where I dwell again. Where I retreat to ideas and fantasy and fiction instead of doing the hard, bloody, agonizing work of life. But in this time of quarantine, connection seems so rare and hard to come by, so tenuous and fragile. Everyone is on edge; no one has extra grace to give. A few weeks ago I made a comment in a Zoom room that triggered a waterfall of shade, person after person lecturing me for what felt like ten minutes. It wasn’t anything major, but why should I sit still for that when I could lose myself in a book instead? It’s so much more tempting to dive into the stack of horror novels on the end table than it is to face the risk of saying the wrong thing yet again and discovering yet again that my truth, my life, my experiences are not what people want to hear.
The irony is that the more lonely I grow, the more bitter and sour I become, and the less anyone wants to interact with me. I understand that. I wouldn’t choose to spend time with me right now either. But I don’t know how to break out of the cycle. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know how to get to a place where every day here doesn’t feel like walking through knives.
Last night I joined a group online for a Lectio Divina session. Fighting despair in the spring, I had done an internet search for Bible verses that talked about promise, hope, and God’s love, and I wrote them in colored markers on art canvas and hung them on my wall where I would see them every day. I chose several of those as my text last night:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” “For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you, He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” “The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still.”
Right now, “torment” and “weeping” and “forsaken” describe my internal landscape. And fear, so much fear, of so many things. This isolation is one of my darkest nightmares, a worst-case scenario you spend your life trying to believe isn’t real — seriously, “What if there’s a global pandemic and I’m stuck all alone for months on end?” is an actual thing that therapists assured me would never happen — and it just. never. ends.
But when I read the verses aloud for the final time last night, what stood out to me were the imperatives:
Do not be afraid.
Do not be discouraged.
I don’t know what that means for me right now. Stillness feels like inaction, and inaction feels like defeat. Nor am I sure what stillness looks like when I’m buried under a mountain of papers that need to be graded and e-mails that need to be answered and an apartment that needs to be packed so I can leave this place as soon as a chance arises. I didn’t want to leave in anger and fear and torment. I never wanted to be the bitter person everyone else avoids. I hate that I have become that person anyway.
Except maybe however lonely and bitter and regretful and tormented and fearful and forsaken I feel, God’s love persists. Maybe I need to be left alone with my awfulness and God’s love to truly understand grace. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the few people I haven’t chased off, and I know that I will not take friendship for granted again.
What I keep returning to is trust. I don’t trust God: not to be good, not to love me in any way I can recognize as love, not to turn my life into something beautiful, not to do anything except use me and then cast me aside when I don’t meet impossible standards. That’s the Calvinist God I grew up with, a joyless, unyielding, unforgiving, un-gracious, unloving deity who cares about nothing but His own glory. I’ve spent years trying to uproot that God from the visceral core of my being and embrace a different God, one who actually loves me, but that God seems so elusive when I most need affirmation. I don’t know how to nurture trust when I’m living in torment.
But today I am going to try to not be afraid. I am going to try to not be discouraged. I am going to try to be still.