Emergence

Everything is as good or as bad as our opinion makes it.  -C. S. Lewis

“How was COVID for you?” Mamie asked, her smile warm, her inquiry genuine.

We were seated next to each other in chair groupings according to our ticket purchase, Mamie with her husband and daughter and I with myself, awaiting the start of our first live, in-person concert in well over 16 months.

The question gave me pause. So ready was I to respond with the usual masked response. But having realized over the time of COVID how much masking we do throughout our lives, I heard myself saying – challenging. COVID was challenging for me. And then I immediately felt ashamed of my answer. How could I even begin to call my sheltered, relatively healthy (I did break my foot!), overwhelmingly quiet, pretty-much-the-same-as-before- existence COVID-experience challenging?  Aside from not being able to sing, let alone perform with the 3 choirs I sing in or go to church in person for much of the time, or working by myself in the office for 6 weeks, or wearing a mask in public and confined places – my personal tangible life really wasn’t all that affected by COVID. I still took my morning runs and evening walks with my dog in the great outdoors without a mask, I still went hiking, I still had a job, I put the same food on my table and still had a roof over my head.  I need not list the challenges this past year (and then some) has presented the world with to make my personal plight sound positivity absurd. We have all witnessed the havoc of the pandemic with the addition of sudden, unexpected storms, wildfires, economic, political, and social upheaval and loss, so much loss.

Moments earlier, I had entered the performance hall with butterflies in my stomach. A combination of excitement, dread, joy, and sorrow danced or perhaps more honestly – churned inside of me, and I wasn’t even performing!  Excitement for what I knew was going to be an amazing night of music, dread because I was emerging from the comforts of my solitude completely solo and self-conscious, joy over seeing smiles again and feeling the warmth of people close by, and sorrow for the loss of 16 plus months of the life I knew and the lives lost during this pandemic time. It felt so good to be on a stage again. But the other part of me wondered at just how much has changed over this period of disrupted lives and livelihoods.

As Mamie awaited the details of my answer, she provided a different take. As an introvert she offered honestly, that she “relished every COVID moment.” Later comments from the audience highlighting their accomplishments in response to their “COVID-time experience” made me wonder if I hadn’t wasted the pandemic. The comparison trap had pulled me right in. Had I failed at this too?

How was COVID for you? 

I spoke to my more-seasoned cousins who live in San Francisco in a “cozy” abode overlooking the Bay Bridge a few days ago. We talked frequently during the more turbulent and downright scary times of the pandemic and I often wondered at just how different our experiences were. They were, for a time, confined to their home. When they did venture out, they wore masks everywhere. Her husband turned into a master bread baker and baked bread for the entire neighborhood, delivering loaves to doorsteps on a weekly basis. Now, they were fully vaccinated and enjoying the new freedom of breathing fresh air after most of California’s restrictions were dropped (much, much later than the relatively few we had here in MT). BUT- she laughed – they were completely exhausted! Now their grown children and grandchildren wanted to come visit – ALL THE TIME! They had grown accustomed to their quiet sanctuary and now felt overrun by what was once the “occasional” visit. It’s funny how our perspectives can change.

Two dear friends of mine lost their fathers to COVID. One of them just recently laid her father to rest – after 9 months of waiting until it was  “safe” to do so. Another friend’s husband passed away from pancreatitis – a complete shock to everyone – their children were unable to be with their father in his last days and my friend only allowed to sit with him in his last hours – fully masked of course. Another was diagnosed with cancer and had to navigate this difficult diagnosis on her own – no hugs for comfort, no groups for support. How will they be now, living into their very real “new normal?”

My challenges were of a far more personal sort – I was forced to spend time with me – grappling with who I am after a failed marriage one month prior to the pandemic setting in. The monotony of just getting through life became my safe place and default. I truly felt like I was on the outside looking longingly in on the lives of others – while placing my own on the burn pile. This pandemic time for me has been a time of waiting and discerning and waiting some more. I am not a patient person when it comes to what tomorrow will bring – I like to be in the know, you know? Wondering throughout, just what God is up to – if anything – was and is challenging!

I am certain that alongside all the accomplishments achieved by my fellow audience members as well as those whose lives seemed so much better than mine, they too had times of darkness, woe, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. I am sure some of them feel they too failed the pandemic. Some of us are just much better at showing our brilliant sides than say, me.

It is remarkable just how differently we all experienced this time of pandemic, complicated even more by the social and political upheaval that clung to the virus’s coattails. Despite the initial “we are all in this together” mantra, we quickly siloed ourselves off into what I call our own individual Twilight Zones of Stranger Things. As we begin to emerge from our respective COVID-worlds, how will you be?

Many will be carrying the burdens of lingering illness, loss, regret, and unfinished changes taking place in their lives. How will they be?

We have lived physically, philosophically, and politically polarized from each other for some 15 months. Learning how to show ourselves again and how to interact with one another will be an interesting time in our societal evolution. How will we be?  

If the post-concert atmosphere is any indication, I have hope it will be a time of heavy hearts mixed with joy, tears brightened by laughter, fear assuaged by warm conversation, anxiety dampened by anticipation, and genuine smiles that light the way to a more gracious way of living with one another, again.

Let your light so shine!!!

Dropping the Mask

As I drove into the parking lot of the grocery store, I weighed my options. Would I be bold and fearless or continue to color within lines that have been drawn around almost every public activity for over a year? If I was bold, would I also be deemed a rebel with or without a cause? If I stuck to my modus operandi of benefitting the common good, staying obedient to the “science,” would I now be deemed anti-science or a flaming liberal?  Who knew that a quick trip to the market to pick up bananas could become a study of societal norms and my psychological un-doing?

The last time I shopped here, I found myself an oddity and the recipient of eye-rolls from those breathing free and easy as I observed the rules set forth by management to wear a mask while in the store – rules that were not enforced but highly suggested.  And now, here I was, mask in hand – not certain whether I would once again cover my face as I entered or go with the flow. The day before, the much anticipated and argued about news rang throughout the land –   the mask wearing edict had been lifted from on high!  Despite news to the contrary just days before, the science now said that if I was fully vaccinated, I could go places without a mask on – inside and out – and not have to socially distance with minimal to no risk to myself! 

The news seemed to come out of nowhere – like a swift gust of wind announcing the arrival of a storm. Only this time it was like the wind we had all been running into headlong all year suddenly changed direction – leaving me feeling a bit short of breath. For well over a year, we have been told to look out for each other – that it wasn’t just about me but what I could do to another person just by exhaling in their presence. With a long way to go before the population is vaccinated and immunity to the viral presence that has inhibited our livelihoods is reached, especially in my community, this all seemed rather abrupt. Not wearing my mask left me feeling a bit vulnerable as I contemplated going inside but what would wearing one say about my confidence in the vaccine? What message would I send?  What would I do?

The fact that we are all sick of wearing masks should not be lost on any of us. We are weary of not seeing each other’s faces, of not knowing whether someone is smiling or frowning – not to mention tired of smelling our own breath and walking around with fogged up glasses. The very notion of such a thing becoming a habit has spurred many a social media rant. And yet whether we know it or not, every single one of us wears a mask every moment we are conscious of others. Not unlike our recent accumulation of masks for every outfit, many of us have an assortment of masks we don for different situations – and without them we feel exposed, vulnerable, if not right out afraid.  Afraid of being found out, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of being seen for who we really are. Suddenly our innermost flaws – the ones we regularly scheme to ignore or hide – seem to be on full display.  And so, we don the mask of the moment and present a vision of ourselves to others that will get us by. A new experience, stressful moments, or times filled with great uncertainty seem to be those occasions I reach for a mask. In essence, we make ourselves out to be what we think others expect us to be. Done often enough we risk losing sight of who we really are.

This past year I have had a marked decrease in opportunities to don my assortment of masks. I will admit to having breathed a sigh of relief at the chance to just be me on a regular basis. But it hasn’t been the mental sanctuary I had hoped for. Rather, the reprieve brought to light that I have lost sight of just who I am in my own eyes. What is my story?

What am I hiding from others? If I felt secure and sure in the presence of others, what is it that I would want them to know about me – all of me?  How earthshaking would it be if the real me stepped forward all the time?  What if we all were the “real me’s” in the presence of others? How might our relationships change? How might our lives in community change?

The stories we tell others about ourselves – the good and bad – of what we have experienced in our lives help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals. These stories are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust.  McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).

McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.

How we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction for the course of our life. In order to do this successfully and have a positive course going forward, we have to sit with our past experiences, savor or make peace with them, learn from them, grow from them, and be willing to let them go. Whether good or bad, our past experiences, the stories of our lives, made us who we are today but do not have to define how and who we are tomorrow. We also have to be willing to honestly share them.  If I present myself to others as one thing but my past experiences have shaped me to the contrary – I will never be my authentic best and my relationships will be missing out.

Recently, I wrote here of a very difficult, life changing time in my life and also shared the story on social media. It’s not something I often share with even my closest of friends but something inside spurred me to tell “my side” of the story. I wrote into the night, hit post and went to bed. I awoke in the morning in a panic. What had I done?!! I had revealed too much!!! I raced to login and delete my revelatory words, but it was too late – I had shared a side of me that made me who I am today – and people had already read it – at 5 a.m. in the morning!! Who reads a blog, let alone my blog, before 5 a.m.?  Don’t people sleep??? Not only had they read it, but some had commented and some even took the time to send me personal messages as well – thanking me for sharing and confiding in me similar thoughts, regrets, and hopes.

Instead of deleting my post in shame, I experienced a sense of relief and connection I had not felt in a long time. Not only had I helped myself by revealing my true self, I had helped others express their reality as well.

As we begin to emerge from this pandemic, we will all have a different story to tell of a shared moment in time. Each of us will have experienced life differently from the moment we were born right up to the last 15 months. Each of us has the opportunity to put our mark on this world. I encourage you to drop the mask(s) and share YOUR story. We will all be better for it.

***

And now for the rest of the story… What did I do? This woman whose life has always been about following the rules and seeing that others come first, donned my mask as I read the same mask notice I have passed by every visit for recent history. I will admit, no matter how much I detest it, the small piece of cloth that covered my mouth and my emotions – gave me a sense of security – necessary or not – for the moment.  Was I rebel or a complaisant? I’ll let science settle that one.

“There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “ 

– Matthew 6: 25-26 The Message

LET YOUR LIGHT SO SHINE!!!

Smiles On Top of Swiftcurrent – a 2020 Sucess Story

I have made my peace with the mountain. Oh, Swiftcurrent – what is it about you that captivates me so??? I first ascended her holy heights and 360 views on the last day of summer in 2014. It was one of those adventures that live on ever grander in your memories – complete with autumn splendor, 2 grizzly encounters, pristine lakes, moose – not to mention being able to see the whole of Glacier from the summit-the highest trail accessible point in the park. Since that epic day in which I vowed to climb every peak I could see from on high (still working on that!!!) this mountain top has beckoned me every year. I was turned back the following year by 60 mph winds, by thunder and smoke so thick I should have been wearing a mask on my next attempt, and last year though I made it top I was enshrouded in clouds so thick I felt like I was ascending into an abyss rather than my idea of heaven.

My destination way in the distance!

So being 2020 and all and having to make the ascent from Logan Pass and the 9-mile traffic jam that is the Highline Trail for the coming and going part, I had set my expectations rather moderately. Having meditated on accepting the crowds for what they are – mutual lovers of God’s grandeur – on the drive up, I snagged the last parking spot below Logan Pass as the parking lot was already full (at 7:15 a.m. on a weekday!) and headed out to brave the masses on the mountainside.

I kept a steady pace and made my way through the oohing and aaahing and at times exasperatingly loud and boisterous groups with numerous “excuse me may I slip by you’s?” until I once again remembered the reason I dislike this beautiful trail so much. There is absolutely no safe place to answer nature’s call!! Now making time and getting to the lookout and home before my puppy really had to answer nature’s call became an all-out race to get ahead of everyone and find a forest! You will be as relieved as I was to know that I succeeded. I also met a fellow solo hiker about my age along the way who was keeping a fast pace as well. We shared the trail for a mile or two – she was a film-maker, actress, and freelance producer from New York City on a 6-week vacation after moving in with her mom in NJ in March – (because what else do you do when there is no work and it is dangerous to live in the city?) visiting 18 National Parks. How different her experience of COVID-19 was from mine and it really nailed home to me just how extremely fortunate I am to live where I do and how important it is to broaden your perspective beyond your own little bubble (on so many things!) After sharing with her some of the must see parts of the area, we parted ways and on I went to the top – and the sun was still shining!!

Finally past the final destination for many on the trail this day – the Granite Park Chalet – I was suddenly and quite wonderfully on my own! Arriving at Swiftcurrent Pass from the opposite direction left me rather unaffected compared to the breathtaking views and climb one experiences from the Many Glacier side. From the pass, I made surprisingly quick work of the 30 switchbacks to the top of Swiftcurrent Mountain and there my spirit soared. I could see forever – far past the tenuous and trying times of our present state – to times before when life was hard and life was oh so good and I caught a glimpse of tomorrow when life will still at times be hard and oh so good. And in the moment as I breathed in the clear blue expanse of fresh air, as the wind at times took that same breath away, as the sun warmed my face and dried the sweat off my back – I was very much at peace – high above it all – and so much closer to God.

And we were both smiling. 21 miles, 4701 ft elevation gain in 7 hours, 13 minutes.

Let Your Light So Shine!!!