Two days ago, my phone started blaring at around 4:45 AM; at 5:15 AM, I finally acknowledged it, halting dreams filled with a strange monster screeching out the alarm in my subconscious. I hadn’t woken up that early in nearly six months. Groggy, I told myself that I wanted to live differently this semester, and I dressed for a workout at the campus recreation center, where I had been only once in nearly six months. Just before 6:00 AM, I stood in a long line of other gym-goers, reminding me that nearly every ‘good’ idea I have isn’t uniquely mine.
Later, at 8:20 AM, I walked into my school’s main classroom building for the first time in, again, nearly six months.
Thus began what I now recognize as a jarring and incomplete re-entry into the world as I once knew it.
And, my world grew just a little that morning two days ago, bearing something closer to normalcy than I’d experienced in – you guessed it – nearly six months.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t entirely like it.
That’s not to say I prefered my way of existing between March 11 and August 31. My life, while deeply sheltered and relatively safe from the risks of COVID-19, also changed when the pandemic moved dramatically from headlines into homes, from a faraway curiosity to an in-your-face fear.
I spent more time in my room these past nearly six months that I had the previous, say, four years combined. The same is true for the number of times I’ve washed my hands. I’ve high-fived less people in the past nearly six months than was typical for me in a day pre-COVID, and I cannot count the number of times I’ve wanted to yell at people for getting too close to me, which I don’t think I’d ever thought to do before in my life. For the first time in my 38 years, I may go a full year without seeing my immediate family.
Certainly, good things arose these past nearly six months – Friday night card games and Zoom Happy Hours, plenty of ministry online, a chance to read, reflect, and pray more robustly, catching up with old friends, and even the grace of learning more about powerlessness and patience.
Yet, a sense of being watched has also lingered, a microscopic killer on the loose. It has illuminated vast inequity. It has amplified questions about race, hunger, work, learning, wealth, leadership, community, responsibility, and public health. It has forced me to rethink much, and as I slowly begin to anticipate a world different from that of the past nearly six months, I don’t really know where to begin.
Depending on the route, I live about eight miles from the Atlantic Ocean. I hadn’t seen the Atlantic in nearly six months. So, the day before classes started, my friend Damian and I decided to take a little drive and look at the water. After a short discernment about where to go, we ended up in Gloucester, MA where in January of 2012, I made a 30-day silent retreat. Every morning on that retreat, I would wake up before the sunrise, step out into the mild Massachusetts winter, and find a spot on some rocks looking out over the great Pond.
I listened to three songs every day as part of my morning prayer. Lyrics from them still sing to me: I just want something beautiful to touch me – I know I am in reach, and I’m waiting for my real life to begin, and so I’ve learned to listen through silence.
Standing there so many years later with my friend, I was reminded of how free I felt those days. I remembered marvelling at the vastness of the ocean, nothing but water between me and Portugal, Ireland, and Morocco. I reflected on the horrific and heroic journeys people had made across it. I remembered the sun slowly casting a shimmer of sparks across the water, igniting a trail of liquid fire from me into the vastness beyond. I remember thinking that while I could see nearly endless water before me, I really saw almost nothing, the surface of the water hiding untold mysteries beneath its waves. It offered me a divine intimacy I’d never felt before and have tried to hold onto ever since. A tiny version of me on the edge of something immeasurable.
Years later gazing over those waters again, my world, which has felt so small these past nearly six months, opened up again. Not in the sense that I can safely eat inside at restaurants or stroll around unmasked, but in the sense that the world is still here, always open for me to explore and cherish. And that’s just what I need now – to remember just how huge the world is, and how desperately I want to be in it, small as I am.
It will take time – it will take masks, careful entrance into churches, gyms, and classrooms, a continued withholding of hugs and plenty more soap. It will take reform, repentance, and reconciliation. We may continue to step back before our precious steps forward accumulate into much. But, if only for now, that ocean isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I.