We walked along the ocean on Saturday morning. The sun had not yet broken through the clouds and it was grey and misty. The waves were high, crashing and covering the rocks, receding quickly as another one crashed.
I love the ocean. I love it in any weather. I love it for its beauty, its complexity, its strength, and its sound – the sound of my childhood vacations.
Often ocean waves feel safe, but not on Saturday. On Saturday I was glad I could stand on a solid rock above the tide and watch from twenty feet away. The waves felt like they could and would take out anything that was in their path, doing what the wind and current bid them to do.
I thought about the way the pandemic has crashed over the world, much like the waves on the rocks. I thought about how much it has crushed and crashed over our plans. From postponed memorial services to postponed weddings to virtual book launches, because the in person plans are no longer an option, our plans have been crushed. With tears we have fought the hard decision making, finally realizing that whatever it is we are planning must be postponed, canceled, or rethought.
It has also crashed and crushed our idols. Whatever our idols are – be they job security, government protection, economic security, business, the stock market, public speaking, living overseas, the perfect wedding, graduations, traveling, leisure, entertainment, sports, church ministry, academic success – it cares not. All of our idols have crashed, and if you are like me, you are picking up the pieces, wondering why you ever put your trust in something so fragile.
At the beginning of February, I was excited about some incredible opportunities. After the disappointment of the summer and our forced return to the United States, life was beginning to settle down. I had just celebrated my birthday. I was beginning a community health initiative in Kurdistan with my husband and I scheduled to travel there in late March. I had been asked to do a Ted Talk at Boston University. I was doing well at my job. I had written a grant that looked promising for the University of Raparin. I had even been nominated for an “Extraordinary Woman in Healthcare Award” for an organization in Boston. I kid you not. This is all strangely true!
And then came mid February. Death came with the force of a mighty wave, followed by border closures, shelter in place orders, travel restrictions, and cancellation after cancellation. The trip to Kurdistan was canceled. The Ted Talk was canceled. The grant was on hold. The community health initiative would begin, but slowly and in a completely different way. My brother’s memorial service was postponed. And believe me, I did not get any award. Instead, I curled up on my couch in tears most mornings, plans canceled and idols crashing, hands outstretched to God.
The pandemic waves have come with a mighty force, and have washed away any illusions I had about safety, security, and who I was. I am like one of the small snail shells that is taken by the waves, at the mercy of the sea and the tide.
Peter Mommsen in the Plough Quarterly writes this: “Whether or not this plague, like the biblical ones, is a punishment, it certainly is apocalyptic. I don’t mean this in an end-of-the-world way, but rather in the literal sense of apocalypse as an unveiling – a revelation of how things really are. This crisis has ripped the cover off certain truths about our souls and our society. Some of these truths are ugly.”
On the one hand, this could be deeply depressing, and some days I do sink into a sort of abyss. After a cup of strong tea and talk with my husband, who has the gift of both humor and helping things seem not so bad, I usually rise. I am not a phoenix rising from the ashes, but rather like one of those shells on the rocks, waiting patiently for the waves to calm down or the tide to change. I am left with a strange gratitude.
I did not know how dearly and closely I held some of the things I have lost, did not know how difficult it would be to give them up. Since last July and my floundering return to the United States, my questions have continually been “What is the next right thing?” and “With all the noise in my head, how do I figure it out?” I thought some of those things were indeed falling into place, but it turns out – that has not been so.
I don’t have answers either for myself or for you, if you perhaps find yourself in a similar position. I still feel like I could go under the wave any moment, gasping, unable to find my way to the surface.
Beyond answers, what do I do? I have found routine to be a good friend. A job, which I am more than thankful can be done from home, takes up some of the week. I do a lot of baking, a great deal of reading, and some just staring out at our bird feeder and thinking. And I try to walk, to strengthen my body and my mind.
At the beginning of February, I wrote an essay for A Life Overseas that I titled “On Safety and Sanity.” At the time that I wrote it, borders were not closed, shelter in place orders had not been given, but people were beginning to hear the roar of the waves that were to come. In that essay, I talked about “bookending with the Psalms” – starting with the Psalms and ending with the Psalms.
As the waves threaten to overpower me, as my plans and idols crash, it is there that I go, and I am not disappointed.
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.
By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.*
*Psalm 42: 6-8