I was supposed to be on a plane to Ireland this morning.
We were supposed to spend St. Patrick’s Day with our dear friends Heidi and Glenn outside of Belfast; catch AP’s concert in Newtownards; catch a ferry next weekend over to Scotland. We’d booked our car, our cottage in the Lake District (once owned by Beatrix Potter, no less!), and our city-hopper from London back to Dublin.
And we’d reserved our seats, months in advance, at the famed Sheldonian Theatre, for my Oxford Awards Ceremony—a panoply and circumstance to cap off four years of study and ambition (and not a little daydreaming).
I got the email from the University on Thursday: the ceremony had been cancelled. Not postponed or rescheduled—cancelled. A word we’ve become all-too-familiar with of late, but which greeted my tear-blurred eyes that morning with brutal finality. Such a sad end to my academic journey. And what was done could not be undone. All the rest of that day I carried the grief of the thing in a heart already over-capacity with anxiety and uncertainty. Should we travel at all? Philip and I asked each other eleventy-dozen times. We messaged our friends in the U.K.; we prayed; we obsessed over Google News.
By the time we officially pulled the plug, the decision had all but been made for us. Nevertheless, it all felt so horribly wrong.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” I told Heidi.
“Yes,” she replied. “But it’s only deferred. As a wise man once said, ‘We’ll look back on these tears as old tales…'”
I knew she was right. And I also knew that missing out on a special trip was a very privileged sort of suffering compared to the real hardships others were facing. My own misery, however, was such compelling company that I slouched through the next day or so with the air of one the whole world had injured.
Within twenty-four hours, of course, the rest of the world was disappointed, inconvenienced, and otherwise thwarted right along with me. I stood outside Costco, fingering my membership card, wondering if it was worth it to brave those empty shelves and hour-long lines for a couple of cauliflower-crust pizzas and hopefully a pound or two of fresh tomatoes. (It wasn’t.) At Kroger, the wine aisle was the only one that seemed untouched by the pre-National Emergency chaos.
“Why aren’t people stocking up on this?” one of my fellow shoppers wanted to know.
“I know, right?” I said with a laugh, scanning the selection.
I went with a Chianti. In solidarity.
Despite such brief levity, however, I couldn’t help but notice that things felt different—charged with a mutual apprehension I had not known since September of 2001. No one was rude or pushy or greedy (I hadn’t been there when the now sold-out toilet paper was delivered, of course). They were just—careful. Everyone seemed extra-sensitive about butting their cart in front of another’s at the end of an aisle, or of displaying the least allergenic sniffle. Most poignant were the older people, threading nearly empty carts white-knuckled among nearly empty shelves. I wanted to stop every one of them and say, “Here—let me shop for you!” Only, apart from the cans of Le Sueur English peas and rag-tag frozen dinners they’d already managed to procure, there wasn’t a whole lot to choose from.
Let boredom clear the ground of your soul. Translate your disappointment and fear into something tangibly, defiantly beautiful.Lanier Ivester
Later that afternoon, I sat in the waiting room at the vet’s office, my cat Wemmick in a crate at my feet. I usually pass the time in such cases with a book, or a quick perusal of Instagram. But on this occasion, I couldn’t take my eyes off the people around me. Some were clutching leashes, awaiting test results. One woman hustled past, dashing tears away, with an empty collar in her hands. An elderly couple had their eyes glued on the television in the corner, with its relentless red headlines racing across the screen. I caught the woman’s gaze for a moment, and my own faltered under the fear I read there.
The last of my self-pity slunk away, I think, under that haunting look.
Where would that woman find herself in the lineup of a triage situation if things got really bad? Suddenly, staying home seemed way less of an injustice than a rather chastened act of love.
Last week, just days before we were to depart for Europe, our beloved Rabbit Room compatriot and master gardener Julie Witmer came for a flying visit. We walked all over the yard making notes and staking off beds. We drank copious amounts of Yorkshire Gold. We dug iris tubers and daffodil bulbs in a mizzling rain. And through it all we talked about the incarnational work of making a garden, a home, a life.
“It matters,” Julie said, looking up from a sketch of my new kitchen plot. “Everything matters—more than we know.”
I couldn’t agree more. If we believe that the Kingdom of heaven is already among us, then every creative thing we do is an act of reclamation, be it settling an iris where it really wants to flourish, growing food in our backyard, or brainstorming unique ways to care for people from a distance. Pandemic conditions do not alter the fact that the work of our hearts, hands, and minds enflesh unseen realities, or that redemption is something God invites us to participate in—even in ‘circumstances that seem unpropitious.’
The fact is, we’re suddenly living under a worldwide Golden Rule. Few of us have ever had the opportunity to care for total strangers in such a wholesale, practical capacity. For all its disruptions, this virus is teaching us an unforgettable thing or two about loving our neighbor as ourselves.
I’m sad that I can’t jump on a plane and be with people I love right now, and I’m sad to miss a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the Sheldonian. But far more than that, I’m desperately grateful to know that we still live in a world that values some of its most vulnerable. I take heart in the fact that we’re willing to collectively care for our at-risk, be it the ill, the immune-compromised, or the elderly. My newsfeed is thronged with worst-case scenarios and end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it forecasts. But it also tells me that quarantined Italians are singing from their balconies, and that healthy people in my own county are willingly curbing their freedoms for the sake of people they will never know.
It may seem counter-intuitive (it certainly seems unprecedented) but we really can socially distance out of love, instead of isolating out of fear. We can stay small, practical, local; we can believe in better days while flooding the present with creative intention.
Let me get a little motherly here and say that “this, too, shall pass,” but that we will all come out changed on the other side, hopefully stronger, hopefully cherishing each other even more. Don’t try to carry the whole weight of this thing, even in your imagination. (Especially in your imagination.) Don’t be afraid—greater is He that is in us than all the microbes that are in the world. Turn off the news for an evening, or a day; do a puzzle with your people, or listen to an audiobook together. Don’t buy more than you need. Check on your neighbors. Offer to pick up groceries for an older person (and leave them at the door), or gift them with a delivery service (and give the courier a good tip). Keep sharing the funny memes. Plant a garden, write a song, learn to make coq au vin. Let boredom clear the ground of your soul. Translate your disappointment and fear into something tangibly, defiantly beautiful.
And remember to be kind to yourself—these are challenging days, and we’re all dealing with hopes deferred. Remember that kindness is also contagious. Remember that you are wildly, irrationally, unconditionally loved.
And remember that, for once, we all have the chance to live the way our grandmothers told us to all along: wash your hands, cover your mouth. And do unto others as you would have them do unto you.