Re-Entry in the World
by Mary Elizabeth Ilg
Summer has returned to Minnesota after an extremely dark and lonely winter. Following the gentle tulips of spring, perennial gardens have now exploded in a pageantry of color, and the frilly pink dresses of peonies. Recently, there have been many days of oppressive, record-breaking heat. What could be in store for us next?
If anyone had told us in March 2020 that the coronavirus pandemic would last for 15+ months and we would collectively undergo as a nation what we have experienced in terms of death, loss, and chaos— no one would have believed it. That over 7,000 people would die in Minnesota and more than half a million in the U.S. That our children would attend school online for many months. (My daughter attended the first half of 10th grade from her bed.) That we would spend hours each week on Zoom, meeting and interacting with people in our personal and professional lives we needed to see, working from home during quarantine.
Most of us know someone who lost a friend or family member to the virus. A friend of mine lost her beloved grandmother to COVID last winter. “I’ve never watched someone die on an iPad,” she cried, inconsolable. The pandemic was especially difficult for those confined to nursing care facilities on lockdown. My 91-year-old aunt in Michigan lived through the entire pandemic with her son visiting her outside the window of her room, where they could talk through the glass on the telephone and wave to each other, like mannequins in a display case. Not long after he was finally able to visit her in person, they had lunch together and he brought her a Happy Mother’s Day balloon. My aunt passed away as soon as he left. She had been waiting for fifteen months just to see his face and feel him close to her again.
This experience has changed all of us.
One year ago, in the spring and summer of 2020, we became used to wearing masks, gloves, and using hand sanitizer constantly. If anyone came closer than six feet during a trip out in public, it could cause feelings of panic. I remember putting my hands up in fear when a Target employee came too close to me early in the pandemic to inspect a malfunctioning self-checkout register. Eventually, after months of miserable shopping in person, I started using Curbside Pickup, one of the silver linings of the pandemic. No longer do we have to battle our way through crowded stores and slow check-out lines. Bright-eyed teenagers bring out your cat litter and laundry detergent as soon as you pull into the parking lot, all driven by GPS on the red bullseye app.
My family has acquired a collection of masks of all sizes and fabrics, including one made of silver sequins to wear on New Year’s Eve. (Except no one went to any parties.) I delivered masks of different types to my elderly parents at various times: the super cautious N-95’s at first (left in a package on their doorstep since I couldn’t go inside) and easing up a bit around July 4 with masks made of fabric printed in red, white and blue stars. When the weather permitted, we sat in their suburban backyard to visit on lawn chairs positioned, always, at least six feet apart. For my 100% Norwegian father, six feet might be a little too close, as the old saying goes.
Now, finally, in June 2021, the masks are coming off. It was a total shock when I walked into my suburban church to see almost no one wearing a mask at a large Confirmation event in mid-May. We were vaccinated! We could breathe freely in the open air again. We could see people’s faces, their smiles, frowns, their expressions of bewilderment.
Many of us have grown used to this cocoon way of living. To change back again to the other way may seem overwhelming. We have full summer calendars lined up with graduation parties, birthday parties and weddings to attend. Last year, we had to watch all these important ceremonies and events on Zoom. We learned to adapt to this virtual way, and it is a little hard to change rusty from lockdown. It has been reassuring to Zoom into the offices of friends and colleagues and always see the same print or artwork behind someone’s head, week after week: a John Lennon poster, a set of framed engravings of Rome and Milan, or a simple drape of peach-colored fabric as a backdrop to hide the clutter of someone’s life. It has been especially pleasant to see cats sleeping in the background, curled up neatly on their cushions (even on PBS News Hour!). Working at home has been great for our pets. Also, you are less likely to be stressed out when you have an eighteen-pound cat purring in your lap.
More time for sustained prayer and meditation has been a hidden gem of the pandemic. I started practicing Centering Prayer in March 2020 with a group on Zoom to assuage my fear. This has now become an oasis for me several times each week, a reservoir of silence, as Father Thomas Keating said. This is a place to enter gently through the silent internal repetition of a sacred word where, miraculously, troubles vanish and the Peace of Christ reigns.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul asks: What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? St. Paul comforts and reassures us: …For I am convinced, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35; 38-39).
May we be gentle with ourselves as we re-enter the world, knowing how blessed we are to have come out on the other side of a very unsettling time, and to have these splendid months of summer to gradually grow re-accustomed to living life in person again.