We Survived the Southern California Recession of 2009: What We Learned – and Are Learning Again Now

In 2009, the economic bottom fell out of our lives, when the company my husband had worked for since he was 21 quickly went from being a Fortune 500 company to filing for bankruptcy.

The financial and professional futures we saw for ourselves disintegrated almost overnight, and we grieved those losses. We had two preschoolers at home and were living in one of the hardest hit parts of the nation. At one point, one in four neighborhoods in the community where we lived was in some stage of the foreclosure process. Not only were we hurting – most of the people we knew were, too.

It wasn’t uncommon during those times to have neighbors suddenly allow their grass to go brown. Soon, you would learn they’d packed up and left their sprawling suburban homes behind in the middle of the night in anticipation of the banks seizing them.

Another thing I remember hitting hard is the desperation of those looking for work. One middle-aged man positioned himself on a busy street corner, day after day, dressed in a snazzy suit and holding a sign that read, “Have an MBA, need job making $50,000. Call me.”

My husband and I know what it’s like to have a little something in the bank, and we know what it’s like to live without, too. Our own childhood experiences probably make us trend conservatively when it comes to money. We try to save and we think a lot about how to be good stewards of our money. We also, often, fall short.

It turned out 2009 brought other stressors. Several family members and friends were facing severe health issues, and we were working to manage those from across the country from our Alabama and Mississippi hometowns.

I was finishing up my doctorate and only working part-time – while worrying about how I would be able to use a doctorate in educational leadership in a recession that had tens of thousands of Southern California educators out of work – and entitled under union agreement to get their jobs back before external candidates like me could even be given an interview. One of the fears that gripped us most during this time was losing health insurance. Not only were we unsure we could get jobs in our fields – we weren’t even sure we could get jobs with benefits.

As an added “bonus,” to the year, the kids both had swine flu – and had terrifyingly high fevers. When those fevers broke, I promise you we weren’t thinking about what was or was not in our bank account.

Thankfully, we came out of the 2009 recession fairly unscathed. It even made us better people along the way. Here are some things the experience taught us – lessons we seem to be relearning now, as economic uncertainty looms large again.

  1. Focusing on what you do know can truly become a superpower. There were so many times back in 2009 that I spiraled into catastrophic, “what if” thinking, trying to plan for every negative event imaginable. It’s like I believed if I thought analytically enough, I could out-think our situation. Slowly, though, I learned to steady myself by listing out what I did know at the time: My immediate family was healthy. We had food to eat. Running water. Electricity. Access to education. Access to healthcare. Jobs. Professional contacts. We had people who loved us – people who I sometimes listed by name when I was feeling my most fearful.
  2. There can be a magic in living more simply. We escaped the 2009 Southern California economy by moving to the Houston, Texas area after my husband got a job offer from a utility company. My husband made less money in the job, but the moving package got us out of California – and the Southern California housing market – and got me into a better market for my skills. We rented a smaller house, near his work and maximized the time he had previously spent commuting to make memories. Because we were able to stay positive and emphasize the benefits of the move, our kids didn’t even notice that we had downsized – or that our previous vacations were replaced by staycations or driving trips to see family. They just saw the magic of a new place – one where Daddy was around more and where Pawpaw lived closer to them.
  3. Music really can be a salve for the soul. When I look back on some of our more fearful days in Southern California, I recall the many times that music got me through. Even now, I have a sort of Recession Playlist that includes songs like Chicken Fried by the Zac Brown Band, Live High by Jason Mraz, and Better Together by Jack Johnson. Each of those songs has a message about simplictiy and beauty in togetherness. It’s funny, but I have been listening to those songs more as the challenges of 2020 face us. (I’ve also added in some Queen and Aerosmith and Enigma for good measure.)
  4. Relationships matter. In the heart of our concerns about the Southern California economy, there were so many good people who stepped up – in some cases people we had not heard from in quite a long time. These people stepped alongside us with not just words of support but offers of help. I can still remember the names of the people who shared our resumes – both in Southern California and across the Deep South. I’ve been thankful to return a few of those favors in more recent years – but the amazing thing is that no one ever asked me to or expected me to – they just helped because it’s who they are. They’ve made me a better person through their kindness.
  5. You never know who or what will help you get back on solid professional ground. My husband was one of thousands of applicants for his job in Texas. His resume stood out because the hiring manager happened to be familiar with the program at his university and viewed it as a good one. A while later, I got a full-time job because my son’s kindergarten teacher was willing to go to bat for me and vouch for the volunteer work I did in her classroom – not because I was trying to get a job (I’d been told there wouldn’t be openings) – but just because I loved being with the kids. Doing the next right thing and volunteering paid off, even though I had no reason to think it would.
  6. You can’t wait until you are crisis-free to have fun. One day early in 2009 it hit me – we had been riding one personal crisis after another for a while. If we had written off the months and years when something upsetting was happening in our lives, we never would have allowed ourselves to have fun or enjoy ourselves. We learned to laugh even while grappling with heavy matters. Life is too short not to have an awful lot of fun.

We grew so much during the season of 2009-2010! And even though our kids were quite young, they sometimes reference that period and the wisdom we gained. They know that we will be ok with less – less entertainment, less disposable income, fewer distractions and activities.

They understand that friends and family and helping others are the real treasures of life. We all still worry a little more than we should and work to predict the future when that’s impossible, but the lessons learned then were valuabe.

I’m re-learning some of those lessons, too – it’s not a coincidence, then, that I am re-reading The Simplicity Circle during this season. It’s also not a coincidence that Jack Johnson, The Zac Brown Band and Jason Mraz have all been on repeat on my Spotify account. Later today, I wil likely make at least a mental list of all the things I know to be true – in this moment.

I can almost hear myself growing and maturing again.

Even in the Craziness of Impatience, Doubt – and COVID – God Somehow Shows UP

I’m not a very good Christian – never have been.

I can often act like a fool. Impatience gets the best of me – fear, too.

So many of the trappings of church – even the language of the church – annoy me. If God judges us based on church attendance and daily Bible readings and even pureness of thought, I am, to put it spiritually, screwed.

And yet, I can sometimes see glimpses of God all around. He does show up.

Photo by Alena Koval on Pexels.com

This morning, God was in an online church service.

I smiled broadly as I saw my friends log on and comment, too. “Hi. Thank you for being here. It’s good to see you.”

He sat with us after the service in our living room, when the dogs paced and I quietly asked my little family, “Hey. What are you learning right now? What does this all mean and how will we be changed?” He was there in the tears that followed – tears of mourning and of conviction, of peace and of gratitude, and sadness and hope, too.

A little later, he was in a long walk, with Queen playing on repeat as drops of rain hit my cheeks. My neighbors of all ages were out, too, riding bikes and running or walking, nodding. I smiled at them, and at their newly planted flowers, small but powerful acts of radical hope:

‘Cause love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love (people on streets) dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves under pressure
Under pressure
Pressure

I’m a lousy Christian, but I’m glad God decided to show up today, anyway.

Things Cracking Me Up in the Midst of Chaos

I did a lot of my growing up in the newsroom of a daily newspaper, where I started working at the age of 16, and somewhere along the way, the experience taught me to appreciate gallows humor.

Sometimes, the only feasible thing to do in a crisis is to laugh – hard – and even inappropriately. Journalists aren’t the only ones who share this sense of humor. Paramedics, firefighters, police officers and ER staff also are known to laugh in the face of crisis. It’s not about a disrespect for life – it’s about understanding that bad things happen, life goes on, and none of us can afford to take things too seriously.

Becoming a mom of two small humans and going into public education has eliminated a lot of that behavior, but one of the things that surprises me in this strange, unprecendented season is how quick I am to laugh about most anything. Here, for your viewing (or scrolling pleasure), are a few things cracking me up these days.

  1. The idea that every darned person I encounter online seems to believe they are at least a part-time epidemiologist. People who can’t even correctly spell the word with consistency have strong opinions about why it is or is not wise to continue shelter in place orders, send kids back to school or close the playgrounds and fishing holes. Often, these people even insist that I should believe them, over, say, internationally recognized doctors, scientists and researchers. Hilarious, right?
  2. Dogs. All of the dogs are making me laugh these days. My own two crack me up because early on in the shelter in place order, I was convinced they were plotting together – possibly with our parakeet, Beignet – to kick us out of our own home. They downright glared at us when, day after day, we refused to leave their house. Now, they seem to have settled into a new approach: They are allowing us to remain here, but only if we serve them in a way that meets their expectations. This includes taking them on multiple walks in a day, feeding them like clockwork and doling out snacks repeatedly. And it’s not just my own dogs making me laugh. I’ve become the person that laughs aloud at random, poorly executed pet videos on Youtube. If this doesn’t tell you I’m on the brink, nothing will.
  3. People on parenting pages who are fretting about how to make sure their college student continues to do their coursework online. Seriously? Weren’t they living in a dorm and successfully getting themselves to class, turning in assignments and preparing for tests without your support before they were forced to return home? Were you doing their coursework then? If not, why are you tackling it now, just because they are under your roof? (I would argue the same is true for high school students. I check for completion with both of my children. If they are stumped, I encouraged them to reach out to their teacher. If that doesn’t work, I try to help them find a solution. I realize this isn’t feasible for students who need extra support, but for the average high school student, it seems reasonable.)
  4. Ads for pricey dress clothes. Really, Anthropologie, Macy’s, etc.? You think I need that $250 dress or pair of strappy dress shoes to “be summer ready? Let’s see if I will even be seeing anyone beyond my dogs, my husband and my teenagers first. Consumerism has always been a little ridiculous, but it’s downright laughable right now.
  5. College recruitment materials aimed at my high school freshman and sophomore. I still really hope both of my kids will go to college and land in a career they love. But I also am painfully aware that the world is changing at a breakneck pace. The idea of taking on significant debt to go to an out-of-state school – or even an in-state school immediately – just seems foolhardy right now. Community college or an online program that doesn’t include the cost of room and board is very appealing these days. It’s hard to know how to choose an education when you can’t even begin to picture the sort of world you are being educated for. That makes brochures and postcards showing cushy libraries and coffee shops and jam-packed athletic events feel laughably absurd right now.
  6. My own tendency to fret over things actually has become a prime source of amusement. I mean, I have invested a lifetime in trying to anticipate the next bad thing in hopes of being prepared. I’ve anticipated and planned for all sorts of things – getting trapped in quicksand (thanks, 1980s Saturday morning cartoons), amnesia (thanks, handful of soap operas I saw at Grandma’s house), cancer, the death of pretty much everyone I have ever loved, wrongful imprisonment (thanks, Scared Straight assemblies at my Title I middle school), and drug addiction (thanks, creepy newspaper articles about LSD laced stickers at parks in 1982-1984). I’ve also spent decades dodging parked cars, because at some point my mom warned me that someone might be waiting in one, crouched over and ready to leap out and attack me, possibly with a butcher knife. But I somehow never got the memo that I should be fretting about a pandemic that forced everyone I know to stay at home – possibly for months on end – as the economy collapsed around us. I like to think this will break my habit of worrying – since clearly I have devoted a lifetime to worrying about the wrong thing. But not worrying? Well, it kind of worries me.
  7. Zoom bingo. It’s so juvenile, but it cracks me up how at some point most Zooms include unofficially mandatory sayings like “Unmute yourself! We can’t hear you!” And, “can you hear me now?” And, “Hi. Is X on the call now?” The awkward silence before meetings officially kick off also make me snicker. There seems to be some sort of emerging norm about not making small talk with each other while waiting for a work Zoom to begin. What is that? Why wouldn’t we make small talk the same way we would while awaiting the start of an in-person meeting? Amusing ….

What about you? What are you laughing about in these strange times? Do you find you are quicker to chuckle while grappling with crisis? Or am I alone in that? Because if so, that worries me – kind of like quicksand …..

When Death Looms, Only Two Things Matter

I lost a colleague last week – possibly to COVID-19, although the official results are not back just yet.

And as death rates from this virus continue to rise, I think many of us are being pushed to think about not just death but about life – about what truly matters and what decidedly does not.

Grappling with my friend and doctoral classmate’s death, I found myself reflecting back on his life experiences. And one of the biggest things I wanted to know, ultimately, was: Did he know joy and love – in its many varied forms?

There are so many elements that can make up a joyful life – romantic love, the love of family, friends, and colleagues. There’s also hopefully the joy that comes from fun things like holidays and vacations and adventures like cultural events and visits in nature. But it’s also the joy of simpler things – a freshly cut lawn, a dog’s loyalty, a child’s drawing on the refrigerator, bubbles and balloons and (in moderation) chocolate chip ice cream. It’s about moments spent with friends over good food and better conversation. It’s about having people who look at you and truly see you – as you are, somehow, but also as the very best version of yourself.

My friend had so much joy – joy in the little things and the big things, too. And so even though his life was cut too short for me, I take comfort in knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he knew joy and love. I saw it in his radiating, electric smile the moment I met him. And he continued to tell us he was happy for years after. I want that same joy for everyone I know – even some of the people who intermittently annoy or perplex me.

After I settled into the knowledge that yes, my friend knew joy and love, I shifted to the next question: did he know and was he known by other people – was he connected and an influencer of others? Would these people carry on his memory and the wisdom of his life in his absence?

The answer to this, too, was clear. It will be clear again this Thursday night, when a group of 18 of us get together to remember our classmate, to shed tears over the knowledge that his voice has been silenced on this earth. But his legacy lives on – in each of us, yes. In his wife, and in countless school administrators and teachers and church friends and neighbors, literally the world over. There wil be students who grow into teachers and scientists and lawyers and bankers – but most of all, simply into good, joyful, connected, healthy people themselves. They will recall his lessons and his love, and he will live on through them. His love and his joy will carry on, echoing from one generation to the next.

And so today, in these ridiculously strange and terrifying and bewildering times, I consider my own life, and renew my focus on what’s important: to know joy and to be connected to others in ways that matter. May this be our focus – not just in this time, but always.

Here are a Few Things Giving Me Joy, Hope or Comfort During These Strange Days

If you turn on the news, it’s especially easy to become consumed by negativity right now. The media isn’t to blame for this. The news in our world is awfully grim right now, and it is the responsibility of journalists to keep us informed about how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, while also calling out systemic issues that need to be addressed, too.

But while awareness of what is going on is important – and potentially life-saving – it can’t consume all our time. We have to find ways to look away from the darkness and to see the good and opportunity around us. Otherwise, we will absolutely not be able to maintain our sanity during this long stretch of isolation/social distancing. Pacing ourselves and monitoring how much bad news we consume is essential.

Part of pacing ourselves is looking for the good around us – things that give us hope, bring us joy, or make us laugh. I will even go with things that distract us right now, allowing us to think about something beyond ventillator shortages and shelter in place orders.

Here are a few things getting me through.

  1. Creative people continuing to use their talents to brighten our worlds. See the photo attached with this post? This comforting greeting at the front of our neighborhood was created by three of our neighbors. They wanted to use their talents to create a sense of hope and they did what it took to make that happen. I admire that they didn’t stop to overthink it. They didn’t wait for someone possibly more talented or with better resources to take action. They didn’t worry that some people might not agree with their artistic vision, or that everyone would not appreciate it. They had an idea and they executed. There is something to be said for taking action during such an uncertain world. I’m awfully thankful my neighbors did.

2. Opportunities to regroup and possibly do something new. Many of us don’t like change. But me? I have always reveled in it. I have long felt like I am at my best when something new needs to be created. Paradigms are shifting right now – more quickly than we can even recognize. While the uncertainty can make me a little nervous for my finances – and the future my children will inherit – there also is something really exciting about all that needs to be created right now, in this moment of great shift.

3. Reminders of who – and what – matters most. Some of our core values as a nation have been off kilter for a good while now – if we ever even had them right in the first place. This crisis has reminded us of who is and is not essential. The superheroes among us right now are not professional athletes or musicians or financiers. We are reminded – in dramatic ways – that we desperately need our grocery store workers. Nurses. Respiratory therapists. Teachers. School cafeteria workers. Sanitation workers. Pharmacy techs. Public health experts. State funded researchers. Scientists at the CDC. As we continue deeper into this, we are going to see that school counselors and social workers and therapists are out there doing essential work every day, too. I continue to hope that when we come out on the other side of this, we will look at the pay structures in place for folks who do such important work.

4. A shift in what is viewed as “women’s work” by many. I think that women, particularly, are revolting right now against expectations being placed on them, and are finally openly saying, “Nope. I can’t do this alone.” We are recognizing that no, we cannot – and do not have the desire to – work full-time, “homeschool” full-time, and care for the emotional and physical needs of our children and aging parents full-time. We also most definitely cannot do it all perfectly. I have noticed a shift in work loads, and in who is doing what. With more men working from home, many seem to be stepping up, as children are home and still expected to learn. This will, I hope, lead to a greater sense of equity in the home going forward. Maybe it will lead to more men working from home long-term, too.

5. A greater appreciation for mindfulness and living in the present. Whew. Have you noticed that everyone seems to be giving mindfulness and meditation a shot right now? And do you see how absurd it can feel to worry so much about the future, when no one knows what it will even look like – or when our “new normal” will even begin? While we need to be prudent and proactive when possible, we also need to recognize that really, we only have this moment. Nothing beyond that is guaranteed. So, let’s hug our kids. Pet our dogs. Listen to the music. Skype with our family and friends – even the ones that maybe we were a smidge grumpy with before all this madness started. Let’s savor our dinner and enjoy the feel of the sun our faces for a few moments longer. This is what we have, for sure.

6. Recognition that some things just aren’t that serious. I am finding myself really appreciating entertainment more now than I have in a while. My 16-year-old and I have marveled at the joy that the utterly ridiculous Tiger King documentary on Netflix has given us. It will not change the world, or make us smarter or better humans. It will not help my kids secure higher ACT scores or better grades or additional service hours (I mean, are we even COUNTING any of those right now?) But sometimes, you just really, really need a laugh. (Take it where you can, all you cool cats and kittens. )

What do you think? What is getting you through during this time? What makes you happy or gives you comfort or hope going forward? What is entertaining you just when you need it most?

Tips to Thrive – or at Least Survive – Social Distancing

I hit a wall this weekend, as the two-week milestone of our family’s social distancing efforts came and went.

I was surprised, somehow, to find myself so out of sorts, because up until this weekend I had been handling the challenge of social distancing pretty well.

It occurred to me that part of my downfall came when I started ignoring the practices I put in place initially to survive – if not thrive – during this time.

I started to get really fixated on the idea that I don’t know when this thing will end – or what a “successful” end to this might look like. I read way too much and talked way too much about various outcomes – including many that sound downright catastrophic.

Photo by Alena Koval on Pexels.com

So today, I want to remind myself of the commitments that got me to the two-week mark. Maybe they will help you in some small way, too.

  1. 1. Get moving every single day. Even in “normal” times, I recognize my mindset is best when I get some form of exercise – preferably outdoors. Some people I know are using this time to push themselves to new levels physically. I’m not one of those people. For me, this feels like a time to be kind to myself, while still moving. That means about 30 minutes to an hour of gentle exercise, like walking and stretching, every day.
  2. Schedule some fun. Working from home, it is easy to have the boundaries between work and home blur. I can easily look up and realize that I have spent the entire day working. Some days, this may be OK – as long as the work feels enjoyable and the people around me have what they need, too. But other days, I need to make sure I plan some fun to avoid feeling frazzled. This week, we have a family bucket list of activities to help ensure we have some fun. These aren’t especially elaborate, and include: cook a meal together, allow a different family member to select the music each night, play Sorry Sliders, and re-watch a family favorite, the movie Up.
  3. Make some phone dates – possibly with video on. I have not been as good at this as I should. I have connected with a few friends by phone, though, and find that when I do, I feel better not just about where I am now, but about the life I will (eventually, Lord willing) return to. I often feel I don’t have as much time as I’d like for friendship. Right now, I do. I need to prioritize that. One thing I know I want to do is look back on this time and feel it was well spent.
  4. Follow the Power of Three rule. I am stealing this one from my church, where I have been challenged to reach out to three people each day – by a phone call, text, note, etc. This is a practice I want to strenghten now, and carry into my day-to-day life even after social distancing ends. It strikes me that if I reached out to three people a day, in a year that would be 1,095 contacts. This is a legacy of connection I would like to leave behind …..
  5. Be Proactive, then Leave it Alone. I have always prided myself on seeing things coming and adjusting accordingly. It’s one reason I left the full-time newspaper business in 2001 – I saw the implications of how the Internet was changing daily print journalism, and I didn’t like what I saw. It’s important to be smart and to avoid being blind-sided by things as much as possible. But right now, if we are honest, all bets are off on what our lives will look like six months or a year from now. I – individually and through the company where I work – am continuing to do some things that seem proactive to me. I am working hard to pivot – possibly in multiple directions at the same time. But beyond that, obsessing over what might happen next isn’t going to be very helpful. And the truth is, even the most insightful among us can’t predict where any of this is going.

On this Monday morning – starting week three of social distancing, things are feeling a little more manageable. I have many questions – and could easily spiral if I wasn’t intentional in how I am spending my time and energy.

Hang in there, friends. Do what you can today to feel good about how you are spending your time and your mental energy.

How will COVID-19 change us?

ball shaped circle close up dark
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Take it day by day.

I’ve been doing a reasonably good job of this task since we started this whole stay-at-home-at-all-costs social distancing thing. (What day are we on now? Somewhere around day 10,209,106?)

But for some reason, today has me doing a lot of thinking about how COVID-19 will change us as a society – and particularly how it will change this current crop of teenagers and young adults.

First, it seems like there is no way there will not be lasting effects to such a dramatic event. I look at my two teenagers and think about how they and so many others are in their formative years. What lessons are they learning right now – about what is important, what to prioritize, and how they should live?

Here are a few things I think just might change because COVID-19 brought so many of us to a screeching halt.

  1. More than ever, young people will likely view online social relationships as “real relationships.” Like it or not, teens often have online friends that they have not met in real life. They meet them in a variety of ways – through online gaming, through social networking and through friends of friends of friends they know in real life. Right now, one thing that is really interesting is that there is no distinction between young people’s online friends and their face-to-face ones – because all of those relationships are being pushed to a virtual platform. It’s hard to fully know the implications of this, but it feels important.
  2. A brick-and-mortar educational experience may feel less necessary. It’s been striking to me how easily my teenagers have actually had their learning move online. Minus band practices and soccer, they really don’t seem to be missing much in the way of education – minus the socialization piece – and they are compensating there by taking their socialization more online. Because I have a high school freshman and sophomore, we have been looking a lot lately at the cost of college. It’s striking how much money a family like mine could save by having a student attend college online while living at home. While this might be hard for some fields, many students could likely learn very effectively online. The same could be true of middle and high school students. Do they really need to go to a building every day? What would they have time to explore outside of school if they didn’t?
  3. Intellectuals, public servants and creatives are the new rock stars. Think about who is getting us through this time. Have you ever felt this much gratitude for scientists – particularly researchers who are racing to create a vaccine? Haven’t you been impressed by how quickly our public school teachers have pivoted, shifting learning online and through distance learning packets with almost no notice? Have you seen all the parents, newly home with their students and saying something like, “wow. I had no idea teachers DID all of this stuff, and maybe they should be paid more to do it?” How many young people – and families – have enjoyed coming together for virtual dance parties, author readings and free virtual concerts? The creatives of the world are continuing to create, and it is getting many of us through. This experience has given all of these groups a newly elevated status. I suspect they will get to keep it as this current generation comes of age.
  4. Planning to work very hard in a single career for a lifetime may start to feel a little too risky. We still spend a lot of time asking our young people questions like “what do you want to do when you grow up?” We want them to identify a career, get themselves some training or an education, and stick with it. But wow! Did any of us adequately plan professionally for the way that COVID-19 has disrupted our world? Today’s young people are likely going to grow up dramatically more aware that even the best plans are fragile. There is going to be a continued need to be able to adjust – to shift time and time again, as circumstances in this world change. Maybe that means spending less time asking what you are going to DO when you grow up and more time considering who you want to BE? Careers may have a lot less to do with personal identity. That, I think, might be a good thing.
  5. A government that cares for people in a crisis is a good thing. In America, we like to idealize self-reliance. There is a faction of our people who have come to have a knee-jerk reaction against any form of government safety net. Have you noticed that these folks are very quiet right now? We are realizing that we need our public health officials. We need the CDC to be effective and to work well and to be well funded. We need things like unemployment benefits and tax breaks and grants to get us through bad times that we just plain couldn’t avoid. We need shelter in place orders and curfews to help protect us from others around us who might not always honor our health needs, causing hospitals to be overwhelmed. We need policies that are created with the interest of all people – not just a select few – in mind.

I don’t have a crystal ball, of course – if I did, I promise I would tell you when we are going to come out of this thing so you could plan accordingly. But it feels like these are changes that are inevitable.

I don’t think that they are all good or bad changes – just changes. But today’s teens and young adults will inevitably be shaped by this experience – that much seems clear. And the rest of us? We had better be prepared to pivot and shift like crazy. Flexibility and creativity and innovation are what will get us through.

Take care, friends. Stay well. Be smart.

Now, let’s get back to just taking this thing day by day.

COVID-19: Give Me that Old Time Religion?

black and white cemetery christ church

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with churches and organized religion for decades now.

Some of the absolute nastiest behaviors that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime have happened in church.

Betrayal.

Judgement.

Staggering hypocrisy.

Holier than thou-ism.

I could tell you stories that would make your jaw drop. Odds are good you have stories of your own.

And yet, year after year, I have continued to (mostly) show up (although, admittedly, sometimes I miss more than I probably should). There is a need, deep in me, to not just worship God but worship God in the community of others.

There is a theory evolving in science that maybe some of us have the “god gene” – something in us that makes us more willing to believe than others. If the “god gene” is real, I am certain I have it, I feel a need for God that doesn’t quite make sense. I cannot prove God exists, but for me, He is mostly definitely there. Listening. Wanting me to join in community with him and his people. Wanting me to be that community for someone else.

Others would say that what I am describing is the “still, small voice” inside, convicting me when I stray too far from the teachings of and ways of the church – the holy spirit, they’d say. Maybe they are right, too.

A few years ago after moving with my family back to Mississippi, we got involved in a church that has felt special, somehow. I really, really like the people there (shocker, right?). They are smart, funny and often strikingly honest about where they are – and are not – in their own faith journeys. They work hard to live out their Christian faith and to love God and others. But they don’t pretend they don’t fall short – daily. Their transparency and lack of pretense is refreshing, and it makes me feel safer, somehow.

I’ve even quashed some of my extensive church trauma enough to be involved in some elements of church leadership – something I swore off years ago.

Our church – like yours, I am sure, if you happen to have one –  has had to make some dramatic shifts as COVID-19 has required us to engage in social distancing.

Our services are now online (my church attendance is looking better than it has in AGES!). We also are having to find new ways to really reach out and hear each other, attending to needs.

We have a phone tree, where a little team of us reaches out to people. We ask simple things. “How are you doing?” “What do you need?” “Are you and your family ok?” “Do you have food? Medicine?” “How can we pray for you?” This feels, to me, like the absolute purest thing that we can do in these times.

I was a little nervous when I made my first calls. I thought people might be annoyed at the interruption. But, because we are social distancing, people seemed to really welcome the call.

I heard the people a couple of generations ahead of me reflect on their fears and their faith, and discuss the idea they haven’t seen much anything this in their lifetimes. I have heard people talk about what it’s like to have college students at home, or to work in healthcare on the front lines, or to worry about adult children a few states away.

I’ve done similar things for my neighbors. Many of them don’t actually go to my church, but because church is virtual, the walls between church and community are more blurred than ever. I try to show up for my them, too. I think God likes that.

Today, I decided that I also will start sending out notes to people, using the cutesy cards I have been buying and hoarding for years for no clear reason. If the letters are received like the phone calls, they will be a success. And I will get more from sending them than the recipients will.

These experiences are making me recall my childhood church – a small Southern Baptist church in the county, near where we lived. The church was too small to have the sorts of youth or children’s programs that are popular today. But man, I knew those 90 or so regular attenders loved me – even when I was a messy haired, ragtag middle schooler who frowned too much, was incessantly negative, and made way too much noise whispering to my friends during the service.

They showed me they loved me by talking to me each Sunday. They asked the questions I am asking on the phone tree now. How are you? What do you need? How can we pray for you? Are you eating your vegetables?

They showed up, sending vegetable beef soup to the house when my mom was sick for long stretches of time. They remembered my birthdays and cut out the newspaper articles I wrote to give to me. They asked about my grandmother when she had surgery, even though she lived an hour away. They were a financial safety net my family never quite needed, thankfully, but it was comforting just the same. They were, truly, family.

And my immediate family returned the favor. We asked about others. My mom was part of a little phone tree herself, making calls on Sunday afternoons. She made a point of contacting anyone who was missing from church that day. And every Sunday afternoon, we would “go visiting” – my mom and I. We had no agenda. We didn’t necessarily tell people we were showing up – we just did. We went where we felt most lead. People were almost always there and happy to visit. We listened. We cared. And then the next Sunday, we did it all over again.

In the days of COVID-19, I find myself longing for those visits again. I suppose it’s because it feels like we have returned to a quieter place – a timespan when people have time to talk on the phone, where if we drive by their houses, we know they will likely be home. Things feel fragile, too. There is a hyper-awareness that we need each other – even while we can’t see people face to face. We are supposed to stay separated when we need others the most.

So in the era of COVID-19, I guess I am feeling a need to return to the old ways right now – to that old time religion. Whether it’s in my heart, my genes or the holy spirit, it’s there. I will keep trying to figure out what it means and what it should look like.

 

Dear John, I Hope You Can Keep Learning after COVID-19 (and Educators Will be Here to Help You)

five assorted balloons
Photo by Padli Pradana on Pexels.com

His brown eyes looked at me searchingly, as he took my hand and pressed it to a word I had just written in black marker on the board, where we had been working together to build a word bank students could use to help them write simple sentences about a photo.

“What thiiiiiis?” my new Spanish speaking friend asked, pressing my hand to the word and smiling, revealing two missing front teeth. “What thiiiiiiiiiis?”

“Balloon,” I repeated to him slowly, showing him the word and then pointing to the red balloon in the photo.

“Balloon?” he asked, looking at me for confirmation.

I nodded, grinning.

John (not his real name) repeated the word at least 15 times as he bounced back to his seat. Then, he scrunched up his nose, twisted his green marker top off, and started writing.

“Ballooooooooonnnnnnnn,” he said, lips puckering as he made the ending sound.

He wrote his sentence and read it to me, slowly. Deliberately. Proudly.

“I see a red balloon!”

He clapped and waved his hands over his head, smiling. Always smiling.

His excitement — the unbounded joy he showed while learning this new English vocabulary, took my breath away.

It was a sacred moment. Nothing in the entire world felt more important than the two of us, face to face, sharing words. Connecting.

“Balloooooooooon.”

Pure poetry. Beauty. Energy. Power.

When it was time for John to go, I gave him an elbow bump, saying something vague and child-friendly about this new and crazy idea that maybe we shouldn’t high five or shake hands because of germs, social distancing, all that.

“John! You keep working hard, promise?”

“PROMMMMMISSSSSSE,” he said, bouncing out the door.

It was a more innocent time, six days ago. Care-free.

I had no idea, blissfully naive.

I didn’t know he was about to lose at least five weeks of precious classroom time – probably more – because of the COVID-19 virus.

Today – on the heels of the governor announcing that Mississippi schools will be closed until at least April 17 – I’ve been working hard by Zoom and email and phone with a smart, capable team of school leaders. Districts have called and emailed, asking questions. Good questions. Hard questions.

We are talking about important things. Solutions – at least the early stages of them.

But I keep wondering what things will look like for John while he is out of his Mississippi public school classroom and away from face-to-face contact with the teachers who love him. Will he have an adult with him who is patient – and stress-free enough – to answer him when he grabs and points and asks, urgently, intently, “what thiiiiiis?”

Will his caregiver know enough English to be able to answer his questions? Will she have enough energy in reserve for the sacred moments, which can be beautiful but also draining.

Deep down, I believe that with his enthusiasm and eagerness and focus, John will likely be OK. He will probably get through this, because it’s who he is. He will learn, even with tremendous challenges.

But I also know that all the educators in his life – including me, in my ever-so-small role as the red balloon writing lady – need to work really, really hard – and very creatively – to get this thing right.

We will all be working hard, John. Promise.

 

COVID-19: What I’ve Learned So Far

While experts continue to remind us that in the U.S. we are still very much in the early stages of this COVID-19 outbreak, I can say that this challenge is teaching me vital lessons.

man wearing face mask
Photo by Korhan Erdol on Pexels.com

Here are three things I have learned so far:

  1. Fretting Truly Can’t Prepare You

As much as I might fret and try to plan for challenging times, it is often impossible to anticipate the challenge that actually stops you in your tracks.

I have always been a person who feels better trying to prepare for the worst.

At any given moment, I can typically rattle off some sort of contingency plan for challenges including job loss, illness, death of a loved one, or even natural disaster. (At least those natural disasters most common in the Deep South, where I spend most of my time.)

And yet, despite spending all that time and precious energy diving deeply into frightening “what ifs,” this particular crisis was not something that I had fully considered until it was bearing down on us. That is how life goes, it seems. The things that end up sidelining us take us by surprise.

It’s Helpful to Focus on What You Do Know – at Least Right Now

My mind can click into overdrive with little to no preparation. This is apparently especially true in crisis. There have been moments in the past few days where I have analyzed the “what ifs” of this situation to the point that I mentally have myself  struggling to breathe, staggering penniless through the streets of New York City searching desperately for food, water and life saving medical care. (Don’t ask me how I’ve come to be on the streets of New York, panicked and alone, while also sheltering in place at my home in the Deep South. I just am. My fretting is rarely rational.)

Just like you, I do not know what tomorrow will bring. But I know that in this moment, I can breathe. I don’t have symptoms. Those closest to me don’t have symptoms. I know that I have supplies to last a few days. I know that the sun is currently shining outside my window, my dogs are getting a smidge sick of my nagging at them for barking, and my teenagers are engaged in a water ballloon throwing contest with each other on the back patio. In this moment, that can be enough.

It is Relationships – Both Close and Not So Close – that Matter Most

OK. I already knew this one – at least in theory. But I have received a powerful reminder in the midst of this outbreak. I have been surprised by some of the relationships that have brought me comfort these past two days.

I have received encouragement from my husband, my teenagers, my father-in-law, my parents, and a handful of friends that have been important to me for a decade or more. Their honesty about where they are emotionally, what they are thinking, and how they are getting through have been great comforts.

But I also have had people I am not quite as close to to reach out and say hello. There have been neighbors beyond my immediate ones (who are awesome, by the way) that I don’t communicate with as regularly. They have texted or called just to say “Hey, how are you? Are you guys at home? Do you need anything?”  Some new friends have checked in with me in ways that feel important and I can feel our connections growing, even with this social distancing mandate in place.

My church is still formulating plans for how we are all going to stay connected and love each other during this weird, admittedly frightening time. I have enjoyed those updates – even when they didn’t carry much in the way of actual news because there is so much we don’t know.

I have taken comfort in knowing that teachers and our new youth pastor are all working hard to figure out how to keep supporting our kids. That has made me grateful and also taken a bit of pressure off – that even in a crisis like this where we are hunkered down at home, I do not have to be all things to anyone, even my own kids.

This morning, I took some time to email or text with most of the educators I am fortunate to serve through my work. We bantered back and forth a bit about the craziness and stress of this moment. We shared movie, book and podcast recommendations. Multiple people told me that – like me – they are currently binge watching Parks and Rec and have found it oddly helpful. I offered them an idea or two about things they might want to think about next in their schools. We were of use to and service to each other. And in these moments, that feels downright sacred.

There will be more lessons, of course. And by tomorrow, odds are good that my stubborn, prone to worry self will need to relearn some of the lessons from today, too. But I hope this is helpful to someone out there.

What are YOU learning during this strange season? How are you?