A story from the pandemic.

This story was presented as the sermon for the James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation on May 5, 2020.

Last year, in August, I wrote an essay about my grown son, who was leaving for college the next day. It talked about how, in leaving, he would have time and space to find his place, spread his wings, and a bunch of other really normative cliches about growing up.

And for six months, it was true!

He came back, in fall and especially over the winter break, a changed person — a strong, grown human, who had interesting thoughts about the early days of Christianity and new skills in carpentry and a beautiful tenor singing voice. I know college isn’t a great fit for everyone, but I could see it doing wonders for him. He was polite, he was pleasant, he fixed the leg of my broken couch and made delicious meals. I felt like a gambler who’d gone for broke and busted the dealer.

This kid even voluntarily went to my mother’s house over the first week of March this year. My 19-year-old was willing to use his break to help her get her house and farm ready for spring.

And then the virus happened.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Spring break was extended, then extended again, then like almost every other college in the world, my son’s return to class was cancelled entirely.

It wasn’t just college: I’m sure everyone reading this with children in school at any level has spent the last eight weeks figuring out how to navigate distance learning, distance working, closed childcare, layoffs, and just not being able to visit their usual haunts. It’s all made much heavier and more difficult by the situation in the wider world: disease numbers and stock-market fears and the basic day-to-day worry of trying to get groceries or go to needed appointments without getting sick. I know some of you are still working in person. I know some of you are laid off. I can’t imagine it.

I keep wondering: if we’re all in this together, why do I feel so alone?

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

There was some worry at first about how the kid would get home from his grandmother’s: he had taken the train down to Ohio, and we weren’t sure if the date would hold, but that part went just fine. He took the train to Chicago, the bus back to Madison. The hard part started the next day.

My family of three is back living together again, in the medium-sized house we’ve lived in for the last eight years, for the foreseeable future. It can be intensely frustrating: We are all trying to do work or school from home, we all add unreasonable stuff to the grocery list, we all seem to need the washing machine on the same day. We’re lucky we each can have a desk to sit at, a quiet room for webmeetings, but every time someone goes to the kitchen during business hours my wife’s concentration is interrupted, every time someone uses the bathroom I have to mute my online meetings, and the kid’s classes get disrupted if anyone turns on the dryer during the day.

And we know we’re lucky: we’re all adults, and everyone with a job has been able to keep it with only partial furloughs. College credit will be assigned, and grades are pretty much guaranteed. There are no small children, no layoffs. We have enough: food, water, desks, heat, internet — heck, we’ve even got a yard we can go look at if we get too cooped up. We’ve even got cloth masks, we’ve even got pets, we’ve even got Netflix.

It can be hard to feel lucky: everyone in this house is constantly going back and forth between “everything is fine” and “everything is on fire.” I feel like that dog in the cartoon most days, especially the days when I read the news.

Which is every day. Some days, it’s every hour.

Sometimes I’ll reread stories just because I don’t see anything new.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with Raymond about what he thinks about the pandemic. He’s a bit of a politics junkie, and a bit of a cynic, and he’s absolutely confident that this is going to change everything, but he’s not sure it will be better.

Except when he’s absolutely convinced that it’s all going to go back to the way it was last fall as soon as it can.

Or when he’s convinced that it’s not going to change, ever, and we’re always going to be stuck in our houses.

I don’t know which one of those is right, or if none of them is. I remember talking to him in 2004 or so, trying to explain the world in all its cruelty and all its splendor, but now sometimes I wish he’d explain it to me.

And maybe he will.

This hiatus, this exercise in spaceship living that we’re undertaking together, is a trial.

It’s hard, but it’s also a gift we’re giving each other. We take turns making each other dinner, and picking out movies, and we have the kind of long, introspective conversations about the world, politics, the history of food, and where we’ll all be in a year, that I remember from my college days.

Photo copyright me. Pie copyright Raymond Mitchell-Stillwagner.

We’re doing the work of being a family that we hadn’t had time for. We work, we bake, we pet the cats, and we play video games and share memes.

I feel like in this time of crisis we’re sorting ourselves and each other out in a way that I’m not sure we would have been able to do if this were a normal year.

Being around a new adult so much is letting me grow too.

Ray is more thoughtful than he was six weeks ago, and so am I. Laura is sharing more feelings with him, and he’s reciprocating. I’m trying to lie less, and be kinder, and reach outside my often-closed facade, and I see that in both of them too.

I heard a song recently, where the lyric of the chorus is “Open the window, let the dove fly in,” and I thought, yes.

Yes, that’s exactly it. We’re stuck in here together, and I’m ALSO stuck inside myself alone. But maybe, if I can crack open just a tiny bit, and we carefully open the windows of this closed-up house, then something good can come.

Each day there’s some beautiful moments and some horrible ones.

If I focus on the moments — teasing the dog, folding the laundry, baking pies, finding ants in the bread dough, sharing stories and recipes and music and fears — they’re probably more good than bad. If I think of the moments, it’s not hard to be hopeful, even through the hurt.

It’s hard not to be hopeful, even through the hurt.

I hope you, who might be with me in getting more time with your families or more time with your roommates or more time with your friends or more time alone, I hope you all can do some of that too.

Picture copyright me. Garden also copyright me. Flowers copyright nature. I need to pull out that dock in the front.

I still write sometimes, and I have a buttload of already-written stuff. So there you go.

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