Monsters Are Not Real

“Monsters are not real,” I told my son while hugging him tight. “Monsters are not real.” He wants to believe me, but I know that no matter what I say, the monsters feel real to him. So, we contain them in stories, chase them with make believe “scary spray”, and sing lullabies to keep them from coming back. But, later, sitting alone in the dark, I see monsters, too. They roar angrily in my mind. They jump from my memories. I feel afraid. I wake up, trembling, from dreams that seem so real that I wonder if sleeping might actually be waking. I scream out in the dark. I tell myself the monsters are not real, but I do not believe my quivering words. I flip on lights, but I still see them. I exercise at times meant for slumber, but the monsters run faster.

The monsters frequently bludgeon me with reenactments of past horrors, but lately they have taken to haunting me with futures unknown, morphing into shifting silhouettes of people I love lying unconscious in hospital beds attached to ventilators. In desperation, I try to hold a hand or kiss a cheek, but locked doors, temperature checks, and “Quarantine – No Visitors” signs restrain me. I try to fight my way out of the shadow world imposed upon me, but while my hands grasp only air, the shadows twist and turn binding tighter around me.

Aimlessly, I move through my home searching for a distraction. I pick up books one by one that I have read countless times and toss them aside. The pantry only reminds me of the monotonous repetition that has been the past six months. I wander down the hall and stop to stare at the family pictures on the wall of people with wide grins standing shoulder to shoulder uninhibited by worries of contamination. In that foggy-brained space between midnight and morning, I wonder. Are we all still here or are we losing tangible form, slowly fading, becoming a part of the nightmare, ghost faces with nothing but eyes behind these cloth coverings?

“Monsters are not real,” I told my son. But, what if we are the monsters, out of touch with the love we once shared and projecting our inner fears onto the masked people surrounding us? Our anxieties growl at us uncontrollably, so we growl at each other as if we can contain the torment within us by intimidating those around us. When waking feels like the bad dream, where do we run for comfort to touch, to hold, to feel the breath behind a whisper, and to see the smile behind a laugh? I need crushing embraces and stinging high-fives. I crave the warmth of love, but cold screens do not hug back.

Do you see the monsters, too? What do they look and sound like to you? Echoing hallways and empty rooms? The growling stomachs of your children? Homeschooling? Virtual schooling? In-person schooling? Someone coughing at the grocery store? Your boss requesting an unexpected meeting on a Friday afternoon? A conversation with your doctor that begins with, “I’m sorry…”? Wondering where you will call home and who will share that home with you? When the morning light grips your soul more than the restless night, where do you turn? Where do we all turn?

Last week, orange signs of “Accident Ahead” and “Lane Closed” diverted me off the interstate, and I ended up on a slow-moving detour through a middle-of-nowhere small town. As we inched closer to the traffic light, an elderly woman stumbled repeatedly as she tried to balance herself on the uneven grocery store pavement while waiting to cross the road. Suddenly, the van in front of me pulled into the parking lot, and a young man stepped out, left his van running, and kindly offered his hand to this silver-haired woman to assist her across the road. The gesture might have been the handsome prince asking the princess to dance for all the grace and compassion it contained, and it touched my heart in a way that I physically felt.

This young man’s kindness reminded me that we are not the monsters. We are people, scared, lonely, hurting, and sometimes stumbling, who in these masks can appear like scary shadows in the present darkness of our world. Someday, this pandemic and its associated nightmares will end, and hope and love will shine in a way that vanquishes the overwhelming fears we now carry. We will cast our masks aside. We will smile, we will laugh, and we will touch. Until then, where do we turn when reality feels monstrously frightening? The lanes ahead of us are closed, and the world feels like a massive traffic accident. The passage of time feels too slow and repetitive as we navigate through towns unfamiliar. But, even here, kindness and love prove more resilient than fear. May the love from our hearts and the actions of our hands sing the soothing lullaby someone else needs to hear in a dark moment. After all, monsters are not real, but love is.

The Stories We Tell

Once upon a time, I had a story. It was a very hard story for me to tell. It was also a very hard story for me to hold. One day, my hands and my body shook, and I found I could no longer contain it. I asked for help. My friend sat down, held my gaze, and waited. I spoke of terror and confusion. My friend listened. I spoke words in sometimes jumbled order as my mind struggled to organize what my heart could not. My friend listened. Over and over, across lengths of time, I told the story from different angles with different visible pieces. My friend listened.

History surrounds us. His-story. Her-story. My story. Their story. Your story. History is the culmination of our collective stories. It is alive, and, when healthy, it grows. Though the events of the past do not change, our understanding and interpretation of them can change as we listen and acknowledge the different views and experiences of many people during a particular time.

Forever incomplete, history’s puzzle expands outward as each additional story adds perspective and a part of the picture we could not previously visualize. The addition of one person’s voice, or piece, does not cancel someone else’s. Rather, it adds to it. It builds. The picture expands. The result of such collaborations produce images greater and clearer than what we could observe in a single piece.

Sometimes, even this many years later, I stare at my puzzle. I turn it around, look at it from different angles, and try to figure out where the me of today fits within my own history. My friend still listens. I continue to grow, and I understand myself better. My new personal discoveries do not detract from or rewrite my past. Instead, the clearer perspective enhances my future.

Today’s world feels loud, chaotic, and at times out of control. Groups of people struggle to make themselves heard over the noise. Even the news feed scrolling on my phone seems to yell. Maybe we all stand, hands shaking under the weight we carry within our hearts, searching for a friend. Can we listen to each other? Before spewing defensive retorts, can we meet another human’s gaze, wait, and listen? People have stories they struggle to hold, stories that need to be heard, and pieces that need to be allowed entrance into the collective history of our time. For that to happen, we must listen to each other, and then listen again. The stories we tell become such when another listens to the tale. History is alive. Allow it freedom and room to grow. Listen.

Humanity, Heavens, and Superpowers

When Jesus prayed alone before he was crucified, did he cry? Did he pray on his knees not out of reverence, but because his trembling legs struggled to support him? Did he yell profanities at God because he did not feel strong enough to face his next moments? Did the Son of God doubt himself? How human did he allow himself to become? Did his stretch into humanity extend far enough to meet us here in our confusion and fear as we walk paths through an unrecognizable world where we stand united against a microscopic enemy and divided against seemingly everything else?

Admittedly, my spirituality stands on shaky footings constructed from doubts and questions, but whether out of desperation or by faith (for they are close brothers), I believe in the existence of love. Pray to your god, my god, his god, and her god. Speak to the love in your heart and the peace in your spirit. Find a way to kindle love and hope within yourself and share it with another. We could all use a little help here.

Whatever you call that love, I like to think it can reach us in every part of our humanity – marching with those calling for equality, standing with those who protect our communities in honorable ways, and weeping with those who have suited up in masks and gloves to live side by side with death for months. Love transcends our divisions and our arguments. It does not choose right or left sides. It encircles us all, guiding and urging us to act in ways that communicate love, rather than hate, to each other.

Many years ago, I experienced intentional actions from another that were the antithesis of love. I struggled for years (and sometimes still) to make sense of what happened and to find my path forward. Sometimes, I hated that person, but then I hated myself because I did not want to share whatever existed in that person’s heart that resulted in their choices and actions. While searching and wrestling with the emotions within myself, I read many books from different faiths looking at concepts like love, strength, and forgiveness. Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, wrote a book called “Night” that shares the horror he endured and survived while also discussing his questions about God in the midst of those atrocities. His words helped me find a way out, a place where I could feel anger and rage while also searching for love and hope and supporting endeavors to prevent the evil choices of some from causing harm to others in the future.

We stand, now, in our world that feels overwhelmed by issues with no simple answers. I feel scared. I yell profanities at the heavens. I tremble, and I want to run away from all of the challenges. Yet, every morning, I wake up and I find myself still in the midst of them all. I am not in a position to make broad societal changes. I am just a mom living one day at a time. What can I possibly do? Where is my place? What is my role?

My son, a six year-old developmentally in the middle of super hero play, does not believe me when I tell him that love is the strongest super power. But, it is. It stands ready to change our world, but only if we share it. We can share love with our family, our neighbors, and our friends. We can listen and seek to really understand the perspectives of those around us. Shouting our opinions is easy. Learning to understand others’ opinions is hard.

Love is written into the stories of our various faiths and in the deepest parts of our hearts. It is the path out of the darkness and away from the night, and the place where humanity and heaven collide. Let’s meet there, or better still, may we learn to share the love inside us so effectively that we find that place existed around us all along.

The Helpers

When Mister Rogers saw something scary as a boy, he said his mother told him, “Look for the helpers.”

A few days ago, my parents sat at home eating breakfast when a sudden tornado barreled down their road. Thankfully, they survived without injury as did their animals, though some structures and trees sustained significant damage. My husband and I arrived to help with the cleanup in separate vehicles. He called me before I got there and told me to hold my breath when I turned down their road as the scene was jolting. All of the massive, old trees surrounding their house were pulled up by the roots except for the one that would have crushed their house where they were sitting the morning of the storm.

The scene did take my breath away as “what if” thoughts flashed through my mind and tears hid behind my sunglasses. However, I saw more than the damage. I saw helpers – heroes in boots armed with chainsaws. I saw people who brought food, work gloves, and homemade ice cream. I saw the man who smiled at me from the tractor as he pulled portions of trees across the pasture with heavy chain. I saw people rebuilding fences and reframing the barn. I saw people piling sticks and debris in enormous burn piles. I saw the person pushing a rolling magnet across the pasture picking up loose nails and screws. I saw people who offered companionship and conversation. Standing in the middle of a literal field of devastation, I saw hope.

Later, as the evening breeze began to blow in a slight chill, I sat in a folding chair in the driveway eating off a paper plate at a makeshift picnic. Maybe, if we had not looked around or wondered why everyone was sitting outside covered in dirt, we might have thought we were celebrating something. But, in that moment of jokes, food, and camaraderie, maybe we were. The world, already so upside down with pandemic and economic concerns, seemed to fall completely out of orbit with the added in natural disaster. Yet, even when faced with of all of those challenges, the most important things, love and hope, still found their way to that driveway.

Thank you to the helpers (and to those whose offers of help are still standing by) not only for your immense efforts and hard work, but also for gifting us with the intangible gifts that light up the darkest of days. You are our heroes.

Hold on Tight

I feel worn out and sad. Nights run late while mornings balk at delays regardless of the timing of the previous day’s conclusion. The knowledge that this virus will likely last for considerably longer wears me down further. When today feels hard, the future weeks and months seem impossible. Then, my mind races. The questions of how am I going to…. hover like swarms of angry hornets menacingly looking for a reason to bombard me if I pause long enough to give thought to my fears. So, I try to keep us all moving, but the exhaustion within my soul stops me before my body physically tires.

Other people have far greater needs and struggles than I do at this time. But, if I admitted that I am presently sitting on the kitchen floor pretending I am not swallowing back tears while my toddler beats a frozen bag of carrots against the tile floor as I stare at a half made dinner feeling overwhelmed by simply preparing a meal…. would anyone hear me? My voice feels lost, overpowered by this microscopic battle that overshadows all of humanity. I crave belonging and connection to others that cannot occur virtually. The core of my being has been furloughed, a nonessential. In the essential physical existence that remains, I struggle to find myself behind the robotic, monotonous day to day life that no longer breathes or feels.

I will get up. I will finish the meal. But, the struggle is real. Behind the charts, the day to day organization, the accomplishments, and the silly family pictures I text, there are these moments, moments that several months ago I would likely have not shared on a public forum. Maybe I am the only person who feels this way or maybe there is another person sitting on a kitchen floor somewhere else in the world tonight wondering… Does anyone hear me? Am I alone? Can I do this? Knowing someone else might reach out, grasp a hand, and say, “I don’t know the way either, but I am with you.”..perhaps that, rather than the bitter, fault finding that seems to dominate media streams might pull us all through.

No one person has the answers to the problems facing our world. Turn on every news show and read every article. Many people have theories, questions, and blame. But, a solution? No. None exists. The solution will not announce itself. It will prove itself over time. We will only know the effectiveness of any strategy by looking backward not forward, and only in retrospect might we discover the solution.

In the meantime, if you feel a hand reaching for yours, hold on tight. We may stumble in the darkness, but we will make it through by hanging on together.

You are Someone’s Essential

When I open the app to type a blog post, the cursor flashes on a line of text that reads, “Share your story here….” My story. What if I don’t like my story today? What if I fail at ordinary? What if I feel lost in the shadows of the capes of all the supers out there? To the world, my work, my care of the children I love, does not at the present moment qualify as essential. What does that mean? Are my contributions to the world meaningless? Unimportant? Unnecessary? Where is my place in the global fight against this virus? What is my worth? I feel lost in some bizarre day that seems to never end and to never really start again.

Recently, I wrote a letter to one of my childhood teachers who lives in a retirement community on lockdown. The reply I received told me that my letter “meant the world” to her. I felt stunned. This woman is the super-hero of teaching. The fact she even remembers my name means the world to me.

I sent a text to a friend recovering from an injury to check on her. She appreciated my thoughts which again surprised me. I feel small in this big world, and I often feel like a child bringing construction paper flowers glued to popsicle sticks while everyone else shows up with bouquets of professionally cut and arranged flowers.

I vacuumed and mopped all the floors in our house before my husband finished his shift because he finds freshly cleaned floors calming. I put down the newsfeed on my phone and played board games with my son and made Duplo Lego people talk in silly voices with my daughter. I call my mom each morning. I routinely text pictures of our kids playing to friends and family in an effort to send something happy into the world.

If I refused to get out of bed tomorrow, the world would not stop. In fact, very few people would even notice. But, I am important. We are all important.

Maybe your actions impact many people. Maybe your actions impact only one person. Maybe you wonder whether your actions impact anyone at all. Bring your love, whatever it is… dozens of long stem red roses or construction paper flowers. Share your love. Share your story. You are someone’s essential.

I Cussed at Rock Piles

Today, I had time to think, and two months of emotions held at bay by busyness overtook me. I cried. I repeatedly texted an overly patient friend. I drove back roads alone. I yelled and cussed at piles of rocks. I alternated between raging at and pleading with the universe.

I still feel emotionally on edge. My mind continues to search for something to fix. My body craves human touch. My soul seeks answers to questions unanswerable.

I want to escape from everything related to COVID-19. I want to forget the phrases “social distancing” and “out of an abundance of caution”. I do not want to see signs limiting my purchase of eggs. I would like to see some toilet paper. I do not want to know the location of a handful of advanced directives, and I do not want to discuss which organs my husband might wish to donate at midnight. I do not want to have reason to worry about his safety at his job. I want to crush the thermometer that now lives on the counter so he can check his temperature everyday. I do not want to wonder each night if I will be able to hold onto him the next night or if a fever will force him far from arm’s reach. I want to hug the people who collect our trash and the person who delivers our mail. I want to hug everyone. I want someone to hug me. I want my six year-old to worry about whether or not his tennis shoes come in his favorite color instead of having trouble sleeping because of worries about getting sick or running out of food.

I want you to sit near me without fear of breathing. I want to laugh, embrace, and shake your hands. I want to eat a meal in a restaurant and accidentally bump your chair because we are seated so close together. I want to reach past this screen and touch you, but my hands are restrained so may my words wrap around your heart in absence of my arms.

If you yell at rocks in moments of frustration, you might hear my voice in the distance. If you cry when you have a moment to think, I will cry with you. If you need to text a friend when you feel overwhelmed, text me. If you cannot see your way in the darkness, I will walk beside you. We will find the way out of this, together.

Love to you all.

May Grace Find Us All

My mind feels like an apple used for batting practice, bruised, dented, and mushy. I feel physically tired and emotionally exhausted before I get out of bed in the morning. I wonder, when putting on a mask to go into a store, whether I am in some strange nightmare or if I am really living through events from a future society’s history books.

The passage of time feels uneven and has lost meaning. I feel disoriented. An external device notifies me of the day of the week. My eyes tear in the grocery store before my mind understands why. Somewhere between December holidays and the present, the world lost its way taking us all on a journey we do not want to make.

This weekend marks important religious days for multiple faiths. In December, which could have been a lifetime ago, I celebrated with family and friends. We hugged. We shared food. We lived. Now, in April “we” cannot do any of those things. We all try to make the best of challenging circumstances, but nothing feels quite right. Then again, I never feel quite right around major holidays. During this time of year between the chocolate bunnies, the eggs, the Friday, and the Sunday, my head fills with a cacophony of memories, questions, and uncertainty. I feel alone and set apart. I simultaneously celebrate and feel deep sadness and doubt. My eyes tear up before my mind understands why. My soul feels dented and bruised. If apples represented faith, mine would not be fit to mash into applesauce. Yet, sometimes in the confusion and loneliness, I find grace… a love for myself in my most unloveable moments and an acceptance of myself as a whole, as who I am in each moment, with doubts and faith coexisting.

Maybe, in the midst of this pandemic induced social distancing, grace can find us here, too – all alone together, confused and doubting while trying to believe and hope in a future we cannot see. Maybe we can offer love to ourselves and to each other in our less than perfect moments. Maybe we can see past short tempers and stress responses. Maybe we can see behind the masks and find our common humanity. Maybe it is okay that we do not have all the answers and that we doubt whether we make the right choices.

Maybe we all feel dented and bruised, and maybe that is okay.

The AND List

My husband is a frontline healthcare worker in the small town where we live.  As scheduled months ago, he did not work this week.  When he goes back to work on Monday, we do not know what will happen from that point forward.  We watch the statewide numbers rise each day, and we can only assume what that means for our community.  Like many other families, we are talking through difficult scenarios which involve things like how and when to isolate my husband from the rest of us and childcare if we both become severely ill.  We worry about the worldwide struggle for healthcare workers to obtain personal protective equipment, but we feel inspired by the number of people coming together to try to help. 

In the midst of us trying to prepare our family life for the range of likely possibilities, necessary calls, emails, texts, and updates have frequently interrupted.  We feel like we now live in a strange dichotomy between the virus and what we can piece together of normal life.  The often rapid shift between the two and the resulting emotions challenges our coping skills.

Many years ago, while helping me learn to manage anxiety, a psychologist taught me to use the word “and” during difficult times, and that word has helped me this week.  Instead of stopping and shutting down with whatever big emotion and situation I am dealing with, I acknowledge it and then add “and”.  The past week has presented many opportunities for me to practice using this tool.

I feel afraid that my husband will get sick due to the shortage of protective equipment, AND we will have a picnic in the backyard for lunch.

I feel overwhelmed by what I will need to manage alone if my husband is unavailable in the upcoming weeks and months, AND we will make s’mores over a campfire after dinner.

I feel unnerved by the empty shelves I see at the grocery store, AND we will spend the afternoon blowing bubbles.

I feel short on time to get the needed things completed, AND we will campout in the tree house tonight.

I feel consumed by discussions of the difficult, AND we will watch the stars from the hammock after the kids fall asleep.

I feel angry that we cannot go on the family vacation we planned, AND we will play boardgames, eat popcorn, and watch movies together.

I feel lonely because we cannot visit those we love, AND we will make up silly plays and puppet shows to share on video calls.

I feel sad because my life has changed in ways that I did not plan and cannot control, AND I will see how far I can jog in the beautiful spring weather today.

The story I hope to tell when this pandemic finally ends, and the one I hope my kids remember most, is:  

There was this virus, parts of life challenged us and the world, AND…

I hope that my AND list fills the page.

Windy Night, Windy Soul

I am writing this post from a sleeping bag in a tree house.

I spent most of today feeling overwhelmed. Our kids, like us, are struggling to find routine while longing for “normal” to return. A few days ago I sat on the floor holding our son while he sobbed for an hour as he begged and bargained for ways to see family. Our daughter, who is too young to understand the situation, clings to my arms and needs lots of hugs and cuddles leaving me lacking hands to accomplish what needs to get done.

My husband and I need space to think and process, and we struggle to find moments to ourselves in the midst of living the current reality and helping our kids understand what we cannot comprehend. I found a few minutes to myself while scrubbing algae off aquarium walls this afternoon, and I cried. I did not try to cry, and once I found myself alone, I seemed unable to prevent the tears.

A friend posted an article the other day from Harvard Business Review written by Scott Berinato that describes collective grief. I don’t know if that’s what we are experiencing, but I know I feel both loss and lost within that loss.

The wind around me is picking up and though a bit unnerving (I am in a tree), I find it strangely comforting. The wind seems to understand and express what I cannot. It howls. It swirls. I feel a little afraid when it gusts, and then after the gusts diminish, I can hear the melody from the wind chimes still ringing out.

Maybe that is important to remember. Regardless of the confusion and intensity of the emotions within us, those emotions will pause between gusts, and in that pause our souls’ music still plays.

Peace to you all.