Once, a very long time ago, there was a world vibrant with color, bustling with activity and people. Billions of people awakened each morning to skyscrapers, traffic jams full of people trying to get to work, to school, to an entertainment venue. Social divides simmered under the surface, but weren’t given room to breathe because today was passing, second by second, and each of those seconds needed to be productive. Even in the evenings, when the timeclock was punched for the day, a million things were left to do: between homework, playdates, extracurricular schedules, mundane chores like cleaning the house and deciding what to feed your people, the very act of doing nothing couldn’t be done simply. Doing nothing meant scrolling aimlessly through social media which led either to distracting, senseless videos or fantasy worlds in which people compared their own lives to those of others, most of whom they didn’t really know in the first place.

An outsider looking in on this world would have easily said this vibrant world was on the fast track to catastrophe. Still, this world offered a lot.  Dreams knew no limits;  doctors could cure some forms of cancer and had expanded the average life expectancy to nearly 80 years (which might not seem like a lot but less than 30 years earlier, the life expectancy was 20 years lower).  Young girls weren’t dreaming of becoming teachers but of being among the first to live on Mars in another fifteen years or so.  Flying cars will almost certainly be a thing before the end of our lives.  Creative people were using online platforms to raise thousands of dollars for strangers in need—and it was easy to ask for help because, in a world where everything was instantaneous, if something happened in Tuvalu (it’s an island in Oceania. Yes, Oceania is a place, too), people in the United States and Germany and Turkey and Russia and everywhere else could know about it within minutes. 

A vibrant, connected world.

A vibrant, connected world full of dreamers.

A vibrant, connected world full of lonely dreamers.

A vibrant, connected world full of lonely, exhausted dreamers.

That world was reality until something happened (we don’t know exactly what;  the theory of the Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market hasn’t been proven) and someone in China became sick.  Within three months, it was a worldwide pandemic, affecting every country and millions of people.  While most survived, the loss of life was overwhelming and tragic.  Hospitals were literally storing dead bodies in freezing semi trucks because they didn’t have enough space. Most heartbreaking of all, because the infection was so contagious and potentially deadly, family members were not always allowed at the deathbed of their loved ones. This meant no goodbyes, it meant people were dying alone or with strangers. Aside from the deaths, the once vibrant, busy world became a ghost town.  A ghost town with no hand sanitizer or toilet paper to be found anywhere. Businesses, schools – they all shut down. Unemployment rates skyrocketed and the financial world plummeted.  Experts said, “wear masks,” “stay home,” and “if you go out, stay six feet away from everyone else.” So signs started popping up in the few , brave stores that remained open:  tape suddenly appeared on the floor and people learned, very quickly, what “six feet away” looked like. Kids’ birthday party invitations asked friends to drive by and honk since they couldn’t actually interact with the birthday child. Graduations, weddings, proms:  these were all cancelled or done through the safety of car line ups.

Suddenly, it was bad etiquette to shake hands. It was more than that:  it was dangerous.  People stopped hugging. 

In the thick of all of this, a national outcry took place. A man tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to pay at a gas station, cops were called. Even though there was video footage of the man placing his hands on the steering wheels, apologizing to the police officers and telling them he was being compliant, that he was obeying, he ended up facedown with a knee on his neck for nine minutes—until he was dead. The color of his skin and the injustice of it ignited an outcry in the country and, fifty days later, there are still people protesting in the streets, fighting for a kind of change that our constitution promises is possible. Some of the protests, though, turned violent; more people were hurt. One by one those impossible dreams that seemed within reach four months ago flickered and fled.

This new world: they were exhausted, too.  And they were lonely, too.  They were also scared. But, suddenly, the carousel broke and it gave everyone a chance to get off the crazy ride they’d been on their whole lives.  They couldn’t work, so they were home, and there were still hours in the day after the house was clean.  There was no homework or extracurricular activities, for either the adults or the kids, so there was time to watch television, find a new hobby or talk to each other a bit more than before.  Those grand, impressive dreams evolved to simpler ones like seeing friends in person instead of over a screen or the ability to take a trip that, four months earlier, was taken for granted. Everyone deep cleaned their houses, their cars, their clothes, their skin—but then, after that, they read books because there was literally nothing else to do. Or they painted, or they pulled out dusty board games. Musicians started offering a ray of normalcy by bringing music, free mostly, to the online platforms. Drive-ins were revitalized. Communities rallied around exhausted, overworked and emotionally traumatized healthcare professionals by offering discounts, free food and long overdue gratitude. If not for the constant and legitimate fear, I’d choose this simpler, home-bound life over the other. 

  In the midst of it, a holiday. An ironic one, at that, given the protests that were going on and the intense cultural divide the nation seemed seeped in. 

Independence Day.

Cities cancelled their celebrations because celebrations meant crowds. But, in our home, we love this holiday.  So we made a traditional feast and went swimming before packing up our gear and each other and taking a road trip to a nearby, smaller town who didn’t cancel their celebration.  Driving there, the skies opened and rain poured down. As I drove with my hazard lights on, inching down the highway, I thought naturally. Of course it rains, it’s 2020.  The car needed gas, too, so we pulled over to fill up and, as I pumped the gasoline, we noticed in front of us an absolutely stunning rainbow.

Reminders of that vibrant world, which everyone everywhere, all across the globe, would have agreed we missed, at least to some degree.  But also a vibrant promise: no matter how small the joys may be, no matter how many feet apart we have to stay from each other, no matter how lonely we may become, no matter how sick or weary we feel: there is a hope that is greater than all of that.  And that hope does brings freedom.  With that reminder, we traveled on, reached the celebration, stood outside our cars and watched fireworks. They didn’t play songs, but we played Lee Greenwood’s  anthem on our phones because it’s not the Fourth without it and then we played The Star Spangled Banner because even though we have some serious issues, this is still my beloved home.

I’ve stopped saying, “When things get back to normal” and “when this is over” because this world will never return to that vibrant, colorful world full of schedules, dreams again—not in the same way.  My guess is, long after a vaccine is readily available, nearly learned phrases like socially distancing and six feet away will be a thing.  Masks won’t be uncommon, at least not for a year or two. And even when those things fade eventually and this chapter of human history is recorded in the history books, people will think twice before shaking someone’s hand or letting their child sleep over at a friend’s. Education will probably forever look and feel a little different. So, I’ve stopped saying, “When things get back to normal” because I really have two choices: I can continue hoping for a return to that world where fear didn’t rule every waking moment or I can adapt to the new ghost town I find myself in.  We cannot control what happens to or around us but we can control our reactions to it and, if I don’t adapt, I’m setting myself up for disappointment, sorrow and an aching sense of hopelessness.

A few days ago, I opened the Bible to read. I asked Him to direct me to the verse I needed;  my heart was restless and I really just wanted to feel Him near.  In fact, my prevalent prayer, daily, lately has been Just let me be near You, just draw close.  Initially, the Bible fell open to Isaiah 43:1-2 which says,  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name. You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, they will not sweep over you…”  The verse made me think of the Israelites and how God parted the waters for them to walk through on dry ground.  That made me think more pragmatically:  okay, I thought, but the very act of pulling the waters back would have created chaos within the water. It would have disturbed the sea life, if nothing else. But it had to be done because otherwise the Egyptians would have enslaved the people again.” So, sometimes, chaos and pain and heartache and loneliness – these are today’s waters being pulled back for us to find a path to a cleaner, calmer, more peaceful life. Because it gives us the greatest gift of all: time to spend with each other and with Him.

Once upon a time, a time that simultaneously seems like only yesterday and yet also seems like fifty years ago, joy and hope felt easier to obtain: plan a trip, find friends: these were goals we knew how to achieve. Today, I don’t know much of anything and planning beyond the end of the day feels often self-defeating because of the numerous restrictions and fears we have to jump through to do the simplest of things. I’ve studied the fairy tales, though. The very best fairy tales are the ones in which the happily ever after is a direct result of creative intuition, teamwork and an indefatigable spirit that can do nothing but rise above intimidating threats like fear, isolation and self-doubt. The best part is that both the worlds I’ve lived in – the vibrant, busy one and the scared ghost town missing toilet paper — have those traits in spades. Combined with the hope found through prayer and Scripture, rising up stronger, then, isn’t just a dream, it’s an inevitable reality.