Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Hell of a Year

"Coronavirus has really fucked everything up." - the first line of my journal entry on 3/14/20

When I was a pastor, I would pack my work bag with my laptop and a few other needed items and drive down to my favorite coffeehouse. This would serve as my work station for most of the morning: in between bites of the best omelette in the area and sips of dark roast, I would fine tune my sermon notes or write my pastoral prayer for Sunday, while people on their way to other jobs and college students and young families and other pastors meeting with constituents (seriously, there was at least one every single week) would mill around and some music played over speakers to help set ambiance. 

The first Friday of the month at this place is always special, because it's Cinnamon Roll Day. These mornings for me had an extra sense of anticipation, because I knew that I'd get to do my work while munching on a homemade roll slathered with a generous amount of frosting. Those Fridays and the sugar buzz they provided were the ones I treasured the most.

Much like everything else in mid-March 2020, my coffeehouse declared that it would be temporarily closed due to the COVID pandemic. And much like everything else, at the time the expectation was that it would be just for a little while--"2 weeks to flatten the curve," as the popular saying went at the time. We'll get through 14 or 21 days, and then it'll all be the way it was before.

Those two weeks came and went, and most things remained closed. My church made the difficult choice to begin meeting online in lieu of the risk that would come with meeting in person. March Madness and other sports cancelled their events. I recall the novelty and strangeness of watching organizations and entertainment outlets hold their activities in empty venues. Many tried to carry on as before, but something of the essence had been taken away.

Two weeks became a month. A month became two months. Just a little bit longer, we told ourselves. Just a little more isolation, a little more patience, a little longer meeting online, a little more perseverance, a little more watching these empty arenas and stages and people broadcasting from makeshift spaces in their homes. Yes, it's weird and a bit traumatizing, but it will be over soon.

Eventually, my coffeehouse announced that it would re-open for some limited carryout options. No hot items like the omelette I loved, but all manner of drinks. And then the announcement that really caught my attention: cinnamon roll Fridays were coming back! If I couldn't sit and enjoy my roll in their dining room, at least I could take a few home. Finally, some small semblance of joy and normalcy.

I recall that first Friday, driving down before the sun had risen. I stood in a long line, moving from one strategically placed piece of tape on the floor to the next. All the furniture had been pushed against the wall. There was no ambient music. We waited, speaking in hushed tones, a certain discomfort over the entire proceedings.

When I got home, the rolls didn't taste as good. It wasn't that they were made any differently, it's that eating them didn't bring the same joy. The experience of standing in a darkened, muted version of my coffeehouse had dampened my enjoyment. 

Cinnamon rolls haven't been the most important thing this past year. Neither has music, or sports, or going to the movies, or a multitude of other pleasures that many have deprived themselves of since last March. No single source of leisure has been more important than keeping ourselves and those around us safe. However, I would say that the accumulation of all of them has had an effect, and not for the better. The emptiness has only exacerbated the anxiety and trauma of avoiding the deadly threat of a virus, the added stress of families having to balance work from home measures with virtual school measures, the keeping in touch with loved ones from afar.

Our entire experience of the world has been darkened and muted, and even the small things we've been able to enjoy have tasted different.

The other week, the Michigan men's basketball team won the regular season Big Ten title. This was a fun moment for me, as it was for MGoBlog's Brian Cook. But it was still different, thanks to all the ways this past year has changed such experiences. He shares a little of how he saw this moment:

I have struggled. My weak connections to the people around me have been severed and the few strong ties leaned on unto their breaking point. A lack of reliance on other people has morphed from a marker of rugged individualism into a blank, gray loneliness. Existing addictions—mostly to video games, which I compulsively click at even when I am thinking about how boring this activity is—were exacerbated. Relationships strained. My personal life roiled until there was a sudden break. A look into an abyss, and a turning away from it.

I can't say the roiling has exactly stopped but at least I have a path I can see that leads forward. It is a repeated agony that it buckles and warps, cracks and shudders, rises and descends. Work gets put in and sometimes it seems like it amounts to nothing. But I suppose if Austin Davis can put Luka Garza in a blender, there is no depth that cannot be surmounted brick by brick.

This is a stupid and flimsy thing to latch onto, the actions of college players attempting to throw a ball through a hoop, but since a large part of this years-long slide was sitting on my computer staring at a football game I had no desire to comment on I'll take it and nestle it into place. Belief starts somewhere. An ability to take joy from other people starts somewhere.

Here at what feels like the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of being locked away from each other I have concluded that the only thing to do is get up in the morning and try again.

It's been a hell of a year. A hell of a year that has seen over 500,000 Americans die and over 2.5 million people die worldwide. A hell of a year of endless Zoom meetings and watching worship services on social media. A hell of a year of standing on tape just to get a cinnamon roll. A hell of a year to watch teams play in empty stadiums and arenas. A hell of a year of staying away from our most vulnerable friends and family, of cancelling vacations and gatherings and big meals and so many traditions.

And every day, as Cook says, all we can do is get up in the morning and try again. And eventually that morning will come when, even though everything is already different, things will be at least a little more like they were before.