the Empathy List #100: When the Whole World Shut Down
Remembering my own pandemic lockdown on this 3rd anniversary via the words I wrote/published
Hello friends, Liz here.
Since this is officially NUMBER 100 of the empathy list, it makes sense for me to do a sort of “looking back” post… but let’s be honest, no one wants to read a “looking back” for this newsletter. ;-)
So my looking back will take a wider lens, back to the date three years ago when my home city of Denver, CO shut down due to a surprise virus back in 2020. (Remember lockdowns?)
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A recent study got me thinking about this because the study’s authors claim that the pandemic didn’t tank mental health as much as predicted. That flummoxed me. Like, seriously? Did we all live through the same pandemic?
Actually, no. We didn’t.
BTW, if you have some time, follow this thread and read the variety of experiences other people had during the pandemic. (Perhaps my favorite: one dude on Twitter wrote a novel during lockdown casting Nic Cage as a werewolf whose bites turn people into himself… so sort of Nic Cage clones? I think?)
Or you can just enjoy these writers writing about their quarantine experiences at the Point Mag.
It’s a challenge to tap into how you felt or thought in the past, and our cultural norm is to stuff our feelings, to avoid or dismiss any lasting effects of trauma, for the sake of our present-day survival.
But revisiting big moments like the pandemic can be helpful because it helps us identify ourselves. I guess what I’m wondering is, how has COVID-19 changed us as individuals and as a society? How are we different, for better or worse?
To find out how we’re different, we must often retrace our own steps to discover how we used to think and live. To find my own trail, I now turn to the words I wrote and published back then—in my newsletter, in print, and on social media.
My 2020 Pandemic Journey (As Recorded in My Writing)
My clearest glimpse into my experience of those first few months of COVID—when all of us panic-hoarded toilet paper, downloaded Zoom, first learned of the N-95 (if we were lucky enough to have avoided hospitals before then and/or weren’t already medical staff), and built a saran wrap 6-foot safety perimeter around our bodies—comes in a single essay I wrote.
In 2021, I published “Shelter Out of Place” in the Other Journal.
While many white collar folks (like my husband and I) could truly live in a hole in the ground for a month, we could not.
Because at the beginning of March 2020, we sold our house, bought another, and then began a two-month fly-by renovation project in which we transformed a junker into a home.
Hence, the essay I wrote about the absurdity of these tasks we’d set ourselves within the world’s viral drama:
My husband and I picked the unlucky month of March to sell our house. In Denver, house selling is already overwhelming—the endless signatures, loan officers needing scans of every receipt residing in the filing cabinet under the stairs, the legal procedures and lists and codes and strangers walking through the front door to decide if they want to inhabit your life. The buying is even worse. One pair of friends sent in eleven offers before landing a deal. We had bought and sold houses before—just not with two elementary schoolers at home. And of course, we did not anticipate a pandemic to interrupt our plans.
We listed our home on March 5, one week before the president acknowledged the coronavirus as a “pandemic.” Back then, we thought that the virus was thousands of miles away, much like Zika or Ebola—very sad and very distant. How could it reach us across so much ocean?
I cannot accurately describe that month to you, although I can run down a few facts:
I remember calling each of my children’s teachers (my son was 3/4 of the way through kindergarten; my daughter, first grade) and explaining that I would not be prioritizing school at home, sorry, no can do.
I was overwhelmed, in fact, with securing us housing. All my waking hours were spent juggling emails with realtors, loan officers, contractors and home depot employees as I prepared the financial back-end for all our reshuffling and then set the renovation in motion.
I was also on the hook to design and source every single element of our house-in-progress while painting the interior walls, cleaning up contractor messes, and demolishing our 1800 square foot house with my husband (the removal of many walls, the entire kitchen plus appliances, two bathrooms, flooring, lighting, EVERYTHING).
Before, we had planned to invite a crew of friends to help with demolition, bribing them all with pizza and beer, but lockdowns made that impossible. Except for occasional help from my father-in-law, who drove an hour and half to our new place to get filthy and wave a hammer around, we were on our own. And we had to make do because we were the adults. If we failed, our kids would have no place to live.
So, no, I did not prioritize forcing my children to stay seated in a kitchen chair to watch their teachers struggle with technology for the end of the 2020 school year. We opted out and prayed for school to return to in-person learning soon.
What that meant practically? Lots and lots of screentime. I would have felt guiltier about my kids’ becoming tech saavy if it weren’t for the fact that everyday felt impossible without it.
So, child, meet Kindle, your new mother.
A month into “staying at home,” I published my first essay for Christianity Today, ironically/unfortunately titled, “Laying the Dead to Rest During the Pandemic’s Peak,” a meditation that linked the events of Good Friday and the high death count in NYC due to coronovirus (published April 16, 2020).
I have thought often of the optimism of this title (which I didn’t write). Little did we know that the pandemic would be composed of so many peaks and valleys, emphasis on the rising action. The pandemic’s peak? Nope.
At the point of this essay’s publication, COVID, the mystery virus, had only ravaged New York City. I remember waiting for its appearance in my city with dread. I wanted to offer a thoughtful meditation on cremation (as opposed to burial), in case Christians were faced with choosing between the two for a loved one.
That was the supposed aim, a review of the theology. But my real, secret purpose in writing this essay was a growing awareness of how my people were responding (or not) to COVID.
I could smell the disdain and delight that evangelicals felt toward the suffering New Yorkers (even if they were not so direct about it). To the most conservative evangelicals, COVID was the New Yorkers’ (east coast elites’) disease, just as AIDs had been the homosexual disease.
(I’m so deeply ashamed and saddened to say that this message was loud and clear to me growing up and I’m sure I believed it.)
At the time, I felt desperate to help evangelicals understand that they—all of us—were in grave danger that could not be solved by prayer alone. That this virus could kill them or someone they loved, and so we must heed the warnings.
This essay was my plea to evangelicals to take this disease seriously for their own safety and the safety of the more vulnerable.
So, I wrote a scare essay:
We live in the shadow of a tsunami. As of Wednesday, 28,000 have died in the US from COVID-19. The bodies pile up so quickly that those who care for the deceased cannot keep up. Last week, New York City Councilman Mark Levine tweeted the news that coronavirus victims will temporarily be interned in city parks to help morgues, hospitals, and cemeteries cope with the death toll (currently more than 10,000 New Yorkers have died due to COVID-19). “Trenches will be dug for ten caskets in a line,” Levine said.
This last week was predicted to be the “peak death week” for the US coronavirus outbreak, though various US regions and other countries have yet to face the foreboding summit. Worldwide, as of Wednesday, the coronavirus pandemic has taken 133,000 from our numbers and infected over 2 million. Projections show that as much as half of the world’s population could catch COVID-19 by August.
That’s my attempt at invoking terror in my readers. Unfortunately, my words were immediately out of date and read by no one because of it. *shrug*
Let’s just say that I was naive about my clan, the evangelicals, despite the abundant revelations the Trump presidency had offered me. I thought conversation could still be had, that opposing camps could still worship together in the same pew on Sundays, that politics did not break relationships. I don’t think I believe that anymore.
Regardless, I learned a hard lesson. CT had commissioned me to write a review of the coronavirus vaccine science (at least what we knew so far), and my aim was to combat misinformation within our religious communities with clear and true information. I even interviewed/confronted Q Ideas founder, Gabe Lyons, about allowing an anti-vaxx crusader to share the stage with qualified scientists in a debate about the efficacy and safety of vaccines (many Christian scientists and organizations, such as Biologos, had protested his decision to do this).
I suppose I hoped that my writing could help prepare evangelicals for what was coming, perhaps even convincing those on the fence to hear out the scientists rather than dismiss the vaccine out of hand because they didn’t like who’d made it. (Oh, you sweet, young, beautiful, naive baby Liz. ;-))
Yet even as I furiously edited all through that summer, the essay ultimately got cut in September 2020 by the upper brass—on the day it was meant to be published—for being too opinionated. They said vaccines were a “contentious issue” and weren’t willing to take a clear stand on the vaccine before it ever arrived. So, the essay died.
As you know, I will never apologize for aligning with science and I believe that the coronavirus vaccines created by scientists in record time was a miracle of God.
But my timing was off for the essay, obviously. What I did not understand at the time was that I was both too early and too late in writing about vaccines for evangelicals—too early because a vaccine did not yet exist (so I could not address the specifics well), and also too late because evangelicals had already made up their minds that a coronavirus vaccine would be suspect, too good to be true, probably a ruse of the Democrats to control their minds (poor Bill Gates).
For my part, it hurt to discover my naivete in real time. :-/
Then came the murder of George Floyd and so many marches across the country in protest, with more and more stories of police brutality in headlines. Unrest and riots became normal fare.
In my neck of the woods, the story of Elijah McClain’s death the year before resurfaced. Vigils were planned, funds were raised for the boy’s grieving mother.
Jeremy and I attended a march near our house and I recorded my thoughts on Instagram:
“It’s a complicated time to be American.
My husband and I went to the rally for Elijah McClain that has gotten so much media attention (police pepper sprayed musicians during a violin vigil... 😖). We missed most of that action, but heard several teenage activists grieve on stage. Protestors heckled police, shouted his name at them, rattled metal barriers the cops had erected between us and them. The anger was the current keeping us there in the blazing heat—that and the pain.
Elijah’s mother spoke at the rally the weekend before. She said, where were all of you ten months ago? I guess you were busy last August.
Turns out, she was crying in her car last summer, for three hours at a time.
Her son was killed one mile from my new house. Back then, we didn’t know Elijah’s name. We can’t save his life, but we can tell the truth now: healthy 23-year-olds should not die in the street like dogs.
And we can pray for justice. 🙏🏼 Let’s make this Independence Day a vigil where we ask God for “positive peace” like MLK, Jr. talks about—NOT blind, conflict-avoidant don’t-rock-the-boat peace. But peace that has the flavor of the justice of God. The peace of God brings about righteous societal change through His people.”
I can hear surprising force behind these words, a sense of my own outrage and power and activism barely concealed. I was still trying to tread gently, but my patience was waning.
Around this time, I also began an essay that would be published later by the Christian Century, “Vilomah: we need a word for mothers whose children have died,” which took inspiration from the up-close encounter with Elijah’s bereft mother at the rally. Her pain had been so easily ignored; and yet she and Elijah mattered to God. I wondered about what mothers who had lost children were called now. Did they have a name?
To date, this essay feels like the most important I’ve ever written, a commemoration of the identity of the griever. I wrote,
“In many languages, a parent who has lost a child is called an orphaned parent, as in the German phrase verwaiste eltern. To be an orphaned parent swaps the object of orphanhood. Here, Mary becomes the prototype of a bereaved parent, gazing on the lifeless body of Christ at the crucifixion. In a traditional Ukrainian Lenten song, the congregation sings the part of Mary, who calls herself сирота, orphaned in her grief.
Such destitution calls to mind the Black Madonnas that have appeared throughout Christian history, as in the iconography of Mark Doox in his 2016 painting Our Lady, Mother of Ferguson and All Those Killed by Gun Violence, which centers on a Black Mary and her martyred Black son. Doox’s Mary raises her hands impassively, her head haloed as in traditional Byzantine icons. Yet while many icons have Mary holding the Christ Child in her arms, here the child is a silhouetted figure within the scope of a gun, pointed at Mary’s own chest—she and her son are a literal target, even as they hold their hands passively toward heaven. Meanwhile, the sacred heart of Christ glows, tiny and red, in the very center of the darkened man.”
Lord, have mercy.
If I have to point to one thing that fundamentally altered my faith, it would be this slow meditation on the pain of the grieving black mother. Through her witness, I realized the white supremacy of my tradition and how much God hates and despies its presence.
My own activist writing since then has been fueled by the need for the powerful to speak clearly for what is right and against what is wrong, and I see how my writing has grown more direct because of that inner urgency.
I do not mean to say that I see myself as powerful (I don’t). However, I do have the privilege of light skin and a smidge of influence. So I feel compelled by God to use this advantage for the good of those who might not have the same advantages.
This is also when I knew evangelicalism was no longer mine.
By August, I was preparing to get the kids ready for virtual school, a task that felt as painful as pulling out clumps of nostril hairs every morning. We had mostly settled into the new (mostly finished) house which we had finished (almost) on time.
All that summer, us Denver parents had been waiting on tenterhooks to hear whether Denver Public schools, the kids’ district, would allow children to return to the classroom in-person. I had convinced myself that they all would go back, just like normal. They had to, right?
With the start date a week away, and I ran out to a nearby a second-hand children’s store to swap the kids’ wardrobes. I returned to the car, loaded bags into the trunk, sat in the driver’s side. That’s when I saw the email: every student was getting a laptop, DPS informed us, because, of course, inevitably, horribly, no one would be returning to classrooms that fall.
Even worse, the district could give no end date to “school from home.” Administrators could not even guess when normal would return.
No one could.
That’s the moment I lost control. I pulled the car around to the back lot in the strip mall so I could pound the steering wheel, weep, scream. At one point, I lost my breath, could not breathe. Then the feelings receded and rivers ran down my cheeks as I pointed the car toward home, where my kids were waiting, where my kids would always be waiting.
A few weeks later, I went to the doctor and upped the dosage of my anxiety medication. My anxiety now required two pills daily to be controlled.
I was not okay.
Even so, I held this breakdown close to the chest, admitting it only to close friends.
I did, however, write obliquely about things not being great.
In response to opening Instagram only to find feed full of homeschooling mothers declaring ways to “thrive” in lockdown, I got mad.
I remember reading the tips, scrolling past smiling parents and children and thinking, “Who the hell is thriving right now?? And why are we expecting this of ourselves?”
So I responded with a sort of “eff you” manifesto. It’s a bit uncontrolled and ragey about my fellow moms’ exemplary attitudes ;-), but it is also very honest:
Here’s what thriving IS NOT:
-Stuffing your feelings
-Ignoring your needs
-Never yelling at your kids
-Keeping on top of the dishes
-Meeting every deadline
-Indulging in daily nighttime baths/massages/whatever expensive white girl treatment
That means thriving might not be possible for you and I right now in this 🤬 situation we find ourselves in—no matter what my extra positive instagramming folks may say. At least, we may not be able to achieve that narrow vision —the get-it-all-done girl-boss female fantasy.
Let’s talk about how to find peace in this season, realistically. As in, yes, disciplines are great. But treating ourselves with kindness is truer to how God treats us. Here are a few of my learnings:
1. Take care of your body. That means taking deep breaths when you’re about to lose it. Drink water. Make whatever meals you can make. Are you eating? That’s the goal—staying alive.
2. Feel your feelings. A L L of our varied emotions are normal and healthy and okay. Having big negative emotions doesn’t mean you’re failing or need to check yourself into a hospital. It does mean you’re having big feelings. Notice them. Have a good cry. And then ask a roommate or partner for a hug.
3. Readjust your expectations of yourself. You cannot do everything. If I were standing in front of you talking, I’d repeat that, because we delude ourselves SO easily, believing that it really is possible to do it all. You can’t. I can’t. I’m always “failing” at something. (Ps check how little I’ve posted on IG for proof. Also: you’d be disgusted by the stack of dirty dishes in my sink 🤣🤷🏻♀️).
It’s really truly okay to let things go. How about switching to frozen meals instead of all homemade? Or only do dishes every other day 🙋🏻♀️. Or give up on homeschooling on Wednesdays and do a play date instead. Ask your partner to put the kids to bed. Or stop killing yourself at work and move slower than you’d normally like—cause none of us are at 100%, friends.
I think I was probably at 25%? Approximately? Yep. Not great.
By November 2020, a deep weariness and mild depression set in. Even food—one of my lifelong passions—had, by November, lost its appeal, as evidenced by this essay I wrote for the Curator magazine.
This year, my garden failed—in part because of late planting, since we had just moved in to the place; in part because of the heat and drought this summer in Colorado and the wildfires that ripped through the landscape; and in part, because I was so tired, a weariness that left me TV-watching and bingeing drive-thru food to try to cure it. I felt sick of cooking, sick of staying home, sick.
I felt sick. Looking back now, I had forgotten just how weary I’d become.
Because when school started in September, my days were consumed with sitting beside my 1st grade boy as he sat in his chair and distracted himself from watching his teacher on the screen, and then telling him to direct his eyes AT THE SCREEN not at the Lego in his hand, and then telling him to sit down instead of running around the kitchen for a “break,” and then forcing him to sit down, and then holding down a screaming child who did not give a damn about learning to read because DUH WHAT’S THE POINT?! (Is it any wonder I was tired????)
Plus WILDFIRES! I forgot to mention the wildfires in my state! And a particularly awful one in September.
And remember, November was an election year, which only added jet engine fuel to the dumpster fire. (As evidenced by the January 6th Capitol riot, which I later wrote about at the Curator Magazine, where I was a volunteer contributing editor at the time.)
Plus, I was experiencing troubles in my marriage. The house-renovating, kids at home 24-7, wildfires clogging the air with smoke, and the endless roil of politics had me absolutely spent.
My husband and I had trouble connecting beyond the headlines, beyond the allure of our screens and above the roar of our children (not exaggerating about the roaring, btw). We required space to really see one another, to talk honestly about ways that we’d hurt each other lately, and we didn’t have it. We were distant; I was lonely.
(We did find time for this necessary connection by December, by the way, which is when the tears started flowing and we started mending. It was slow going, but in the new year, we found a new rhythm, and I still love him so much. He’s a gem of an introverted male feminist/activist. ;-))
Yet in an essay published in February, I see a shift. Perhaps that increasing health of my marriage made me feel some renewing sense of hope. Because the essay I published at Fathom about a friend’s death actually sounds remarkably like a celebration of life (“Vigil”):
These were the days when death was attended—before coronavirus made such a vigil impossible. Keith spent his last days watching his baby flap his arms at the tubes pushed into his body. His toddler told him knock-knock jokes, lying against his side, his wife’s hand enclosing his, their closest friends and family members circling the bed.
…Is presence anything but miraculous? All the bodies holding his, witnessing his body’s expiration with grief, yes, but also anticipation and wonder. No one would wish such a death on a young father. And yet, the chance to say goodbye means something, to grieve the body going and gone, and to hope for what may be, again.
That last line still gets me. The chance to say goodbye means something. I believe this is true even when we’re talking about a year and not only a body.
As wrenching as 2020 was, upheavals like these change us.
As I examine my past selves, I do see movement, a strengthening. Though I’m EXTREMELY HAPPY to be out of that hellscape and NEVER want to go back… I feel amazed at myself. I made it. We made it. We are still here, alive.
Did you think you’d make it to the other side?
Sometimes I need to take a breath to remember that life—simply the fact of existing—is a miracle all by itself.
After revisiting so many BIG feelings to write this email, I find myself humbled by the fact of oxygen, of shelter, of survival. The most basic things mean something, too. These are not to be taken for granted because not all of us made it to the other side. You may have lost someone. Most of us did.
I do not mean to diminish my experience or yours, but I find myself genuinely astonished: all of THAT us in the past. Today is not then; I made it to this present.
I guess you could call that gratitude.
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
QUESTION: What was your pandemic experience like, especially in those early months of 2020?
I want the good, bizarre and ugly, the more specific, the better. :) What strange thing did you do or try? What hobby did you pick up? What absurd event happened over technology? Tell me about it.
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Whooo, this brought so much back, and I really appreciate your writing. In 2020 my husband was a prison RN, so you can imagine the ‘care’ that was taken to ensure everyone’s safety. I was terrified for him, us. No one took masking seriously except him.
I watched him go into isolation 3x after possible exposure, staying in his parents’ garage apartment since we lived on their property, and then watched them have almost zero respect for social distancing and just hop into his room without any warning multiple times. Meanwhile I’m home with 4 kids.
My anxiety was through the roof. We knew virtual school wouldn’t work that fall because we lived in a rural area with shit internet, so I decided to homeschool! Yay! Mike & I both got Covid just after school started. Despite my kids not getting sick after such exposure I clung to keeping them home (rigid thinking, I guess). A month in Mike was like, this is killing you, put them in school (it was an option, but NO ONE was masking. Ah, the south.) it took another month and a serious breakdown for me to see that putting them back in class was best.
Add to all this several run-ins where my MIL really didn’t like my boundary setting, and yeah. Fun times.
Well, that was a book😅it is cathartic to look back, so thank you for the chance!
We adopted our first child at her birth in December 2019. In June 2019, my husband nearly died. We were lucky our local hospital had a ventilator available. 5 weeks later he came home from the hospital for the first time that summer. I'm not sure how many hospital visits he had that year, but it wasn't good. Meanwhile, our church resumed meeting in person, 90% unmasked, as soon as it was legal. As preacher and sole breadwinner for our little family, my husband went, masked, whenever he was well enough. You name the conspiracy theory, we heard it. (I was even told that putting a mask on a child was child abuse!) Every time, my heart broke a little more. Every time I felt a little more alone.
I'm not sure my point in all this, other than telling it helps me process. 2020 was an awful year for everyone. Despite everything we experienced, I am beyond privileged that all my close friends and family made it through that year alive. Now to process the trauma!