Love is spacious. This is what I am learning amid a global pandemic that requires us to keep our distance. Ironic, perhaps. But the wide embrace of God’s love brings me solace.
Like most everyone, my world has a small orbit these days. A three-bedroom flat with a porch. An eight-year-old son. A kitchen table that doubles as a classroom and office. I am rarely alone, yet I often feel disconnected. I struggle to recharge. I live inside my head. Before the pandemic, I could mask my discontent sitting in coffee shops with my laptop, going about my workday convincing myself that my life was as full as I wanted it to be. Now I have nowhere to hide.
I tell myself that the goal is to emerge from this time stronger and wiser. Or maybe just clearer. The weekend before the shutdown started last March, I blasted Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” on my five-hour drive home. A swirl of awe and gratitude poured out of me as I sang. I’d spent those two days and nights training a room full of future spiritual directors, telling stories about God and our truest selves. The sacred had flowed through me like a river flows gently to the sea.
Eight months later (and what feels to be closer to a century), I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I am no longer that girl on fire. I do not know where she went. I notice the flat outline of my mouth, the dullness in my grey-green eyes, the resoluteness of my stare. I take it all in and wonder what people think when they see me. Or how often my son sees my rawness rather than a motherly expression tempered with kindness and love.
The winter before the pandemic, I had begun to slowly emerge from my monolithic focus on raising my son. He was getting older, a bit more independent. I was stepping out into more speaking engagements which captivated others and energized me to my core. I had a getaway trip planned (my first work-free, child-free weekend in five years). I was writing almost every morning, learning to do crow pose in yoga, and sleeping soundly at night.
But now as COVID-19 cases explode and anxieties increase, I struggle to honor myself. My life feels like I am on permanent pause. And suddenly, it is easier (and far more familiar) to take care of everyone and everything else: remote learning assignments, playing good guys and bad guys, handwashing masks, calling the freezer repairman, dislodging a Lego head from the drain. I slipped back into my old habits, forgetting to put my oxygen mask on first.
At night, I work long after my son is asleep, numbing myself from the loneliness. I tell myself that this is when I am most productive. I also need to keep my job. I have plenty of hours to make up from when I was reteaching quadrilaterals and Googling rhombi. Even though I have overcome this nocturnal pattern in the past, it is my primary coping mechanism now. I go to bed late, get up, repeat. A small voice in my head tells me that my writing doesn’t matter.
But the woman I see in my reflection matters. She is angry and sad. She is tired of being pushed to the end of the line, standing behind the week-old voicemails I forgot to listen to that remind me of the doctor’s appointment I clearly missed. How can this be me?
Tonight, I decide to do what spiritual direction has taught me to do for others: I make space. I allow this anger and sadness to be present. I look at my reflection and try to embrace it. I do not tell myself to buck up, get a grip, or be more grateful. I do not tell myself that I am selfish to feel this way when so many people are suffering far more than I am. I do not shame (or at least I try not to). My reflection is an invitation, a message from my soul.
I stare into the mirror for what feels like 30 minutes but may be only five. “I see you,” my mind tells my reflection. Over and over and over again I say this to that blank stare. I see you. I see you. I see you. And, then ever so subtly, something shifts. My shoulders soften. A glimmer appears in my eyes. An unexpected smile begins to emerge. I start to feel a tinge of energy, hope even. I have not lost myself because what is in me can never be lost.
I accept the invitation to pay attention, to make room in my heart for what already is. My anger and my sadness are great teachers. They remind me that I need to make space in my day to write. I need to make space in my day to connect with other adults in some small way. I need to make space at night to turn off my computer, my phone, the news—and choose me instead.
I start to pray fervently for the strength and commitment to do better this time, to once and for all shed the old habits that no longer serve me. I hear that small voice in my head ask bitterly why I keep having to learn this lesson again and again.
But before I can conjure up an answer, images of how fully God loves start to wash over me. God loves the untouchables as much as the prophets. God welcomes home the prodigal son. God does not cast the first stone. Getting it right does not seem to be what God is after.
Perhaps all we need is the willingness to be real. To embrace all of who we are. And to allow the spaciousness of God’s love to nudge us forward, from one moment into the next.
My eyes are bright now. Awe and gratitude have found me once again. I wrap myself up in my favorite blanket and lay down on my living room couch. I am giving myself the night off. I am choosing me, and in doing so, I pray to create more space for all the love in my heart to flow out into the world like a river flows gently to the sea.