2020 has taken its toll on everyone. Each of us feels the pressure building as the election year, an ongoing pandemic, and the continuous tide of racial injustice violently collide, one thing against another against another. And though our individual worries may differ greatly and our lives are impacted to varying degrees, few of us can deny the unexpected strain and frustration this year has brought.
Last week, our little family was fortunate enough to take a brief hiatus from the ongoing stressors and escape to the northern reaches of the Upper Peninsula. We wanted to give our boys a dose of normalcy, a week spent in the quiet of a Great Lake and giant hemlocks before diving headfirst into whatever the upcoming school year holds. Each day, we threw lines in lakes, hoping some unlucky sunfish might provide a noble fight for our four-year-old as he stood soaked in summer rain. We watched our bigger boys build driftwood forts and scan the shoreline for fossils as the baby splashed through shallow waters. “Swimmin’ in the sea!” he sang, bringing sunshine to overcast afternoons. At night, we snuggled in tents and rustic cabins, bonfire smoke permeating our hair as we sank into sleep together. We ended each evening grateful for the uninterrupted days of exploration and play, so welcomed and exhausting and peaceful.
But as quickly as these days came, they were over, and we returned home, weighed down with a week’s worth of dirty laundry, a vehicle littered in Lake Superior sand and phones with full bars. It was time to get back to work. My husband had endless emails and calls to return, people to please. I came back to freelance assignments with fast-approaching deadlines and the filthy remnants of a road trip to sort through, not to mention a foul mood darkening by the hour. The days of no cell service, internet, or television were behind us now, and as the flat-screen called out the latest media buzz, as my phone dinged with an awaiting text and another heartbreaking headline, I let the noise back in. I felt it chase away the peace I had so intentionally carved out space for during our week away.
Down the rabbit hole I went, scrolling social media nonsense, memes and graphics designed to send onlookers down the road of no return. I tuned in to the conventions and was met with the poisonous sound bites I had expected, each side intent on shoving observers deep into their respective corners. And against my best judgment, I even responded to a few of the folks on my feed working to do the same, folks who, on any other day I would have swiped right past, knowing that one-off responses do little to change minds, nothing to change hearts.
Emptied of the calm I had found in the northern woods, I sat in my frustration and disappointment late into the evening. I let it accompany me to bed. I allowed it space at my breakfast table as sleepy, sweet faces asked for “More juice please, Mama” and delighted in the generous portions of chocolate-chip pancakes hurriedly loaded onto plates as I scanned another news article. My kind, loving little humans, the ones I am tasked with raising to become kind, loving adult humans – they were right in front of me. My small sphere of influence in this great big world was perched at the table waiting for direction, while I permitted blips on a screen to cloud my family’s glorious light. Couldn’t I see their joyful, chocolate-tinged smiles through the fog? Couldn’t I recognize that those I have been gifted with guiding were staring me straight in the eye?
It is easy to know these things in the shelter of evergreens or drenched in raindrops on a forgotten lake, but when we head back into the fray and the noise comes at us from all sides, it is difficult to recall who and what is worthy of our time. It is hard to remember which way is up and which way will inevitably bring us all down. We get lost, dragged into the mud of cyber grandstanding, trapped in the revolving door of a 24-hour news cycle, while our most important tasks of the day are upstaged.
But the way out of this mess will not be found running in circles, barking incessantly, a dog after its own tail. Leave those dogs in the dirt, snarling and peeing on everyone’s trees. Leave them to tear each other to pieces as you return to the work you were so perfectly created to do – serving your community, loving your family, leading your church, donating your time, helping your neighbor, speaking your truth, teaching your children, educating yourself. Fight the ugliness and division in ways hatred cannot undo, with compassion and understanding, empathy and love in action (and maybe an occasional Facebook comment).
I have no idea what this school year, this November, or this flu season will bring, but I know that whatever lies ahead will be all the more difficult to handle if I have misspent my precious energy wallowing in the muck. So, I will use the little control I have this year and direct my focus on the people right in front of me, the ones peeking over sticky cups of apple juice, waiting patiently for me to show them the way.