My priorities in a time of pandemic

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change? This annual exercise helps me stay focused so various kinds of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters. I use my morning meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluate my progress for the past year, and create an intention for the coming year. 

To say this past year did not go as planned would be a huge understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended every familiar activity and routine in my life. Dulcimer group – cancelled until further notice. Choir practice – cancelled until further notice. Stay Fit classes – cancelled until further notice. Visits with family and friends – cancelled until further notice. Groceries – delivered to our home. Church, Bible study, book group and even some doctor appointments – all online.

However, I’ve decided the priorities I identified last year are still good ones, so they will remain the same for now: my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude.

Since it looks like the pandemic will be with us for a while, my challenge is this: How do I continue to work on my priorities in the face of the restrictions and disruption? When the lockdown began in March, I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels, struggling to establish new routines and warding off mild depression. But with a bit of creativity, I’ve begun finding ways to turn this quarantine experience into productive time. 

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress/changes this past year: I continued to meet with my spiritual director, but due to the pandemic and underlying health conditions for both of us, we’ve begun meeting by phone rather than face to face. Fortunately, we’ve developed enough of a relationship over the past three years that the phone meetings work just fine.

Intention for the coming year: In addition to sessions with my spiritual director, I need to make sure I keep morning meditation part of my daily routine. Since the ongoing quarantine almost entirely prevents Pete and I from leaving the house, there’s really no excuse not to do this every morning, except for Sunday when we “attend” our church’s online service. We also participate in a weekly Bible study group via Zoom.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress/changes this past year: Ugh. Our Stay Fit exercise program has been cancelled since March, and my healthy eating plan went off the rails about the same time. The lack of exercise – except for an occasional walk – coupled with way too much comfort food has me well on my way to gaining the dreaded Quarantine 15.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are still the temple of the Holy Spirit – pandemic or no pandemic – and I’ve resolved to take better care of mine! Doctor appointments have definitely gotten more complicated, and I no longer have access to the spa for the massages that were so helpful in relieving arthritis pain. But if anything, this makes routine self-care more important. I need to focus on eating healthy food, getting the right exercise, and getting enough sleep.

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal:  Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress/changes this past year: All face-to-face visits with family and friends have been off the table since just before Easter. Thank God for Zoom and FaceTime.

Intention for the coming year: Learning some new technology has been really helpful. I plan to schedule regular “get-together” FaceTime sessions with family and friends while we’re under quarantine. And, of course, we can continue to stay in touch via Facebook. 

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and our friends.

Progress/changes this past year: Alas! The goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place eludes me at the best of times. But now we can no longer use the services of our marvelous cleaning ladies because we can’t safely let them in the house. Yes, I know this is a First World problem, but it does create some extra work I wasn’t expecting.

Intention for the coming year: Now that so many of our regular activities are on hiatus, I have no excuse not to commit to one hour each weekday for cleaning and sorting. I’d love for this to be the year I finally sort through all the accumulated STUFF in our house, recycle or give away anything we don’t need, and find a place for whatever we decide to keep. And get some more pictures up on the walls.

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress/changes this past year: I’ve actually been keeping up with my blog pretty well, posting nearly once a week. I’ve also finally begun writing my book. Believe it or not, this is one priority that actually seems to have gotten easier to achieve under quarantine.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to devote at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I sincerely believe my writing ability is one of God’s gifts to me. If I can discipline myself to stay off the Internet unless I’m doing something useful such as research or communicating with real people – and avoid the kind of mindless surfing that wastes hours and hours of time – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing. We’re not going anywhere for possibly the next year, so I want to come out of this enforced hibernation period with a BOOK! No excuses. This needs to happen. 

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress/changes this past year: For the first half of the past year, my volunteer work involved a lot of church activities, along with participation in a musical group that entertained residents at a local retirement center. That all ended when the lockdown began in March.

Intention for the coming year: My congregation has extensively discussed ways to “be church” even with our building closed. Pete and I have decided to adjust some of our charitable contributions upward since we’re less able to contribute volunteer hours and we can afford it. And I plan to volunteer for a couple of my favorite candidates in this year’s election by writing postcards and letters, something I can do safely from home. 

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate clutter and backlog tasks that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress/changes this past year: Quarantining threw a monkey wrench into my best-laid plans. For example, doing my taxes got more complicated, so we’ve had to ask for an extension for the first time in years.

Intention for the coming year: I need to make a list of tasks that are hanging over my head and commit to crossing off one thing each week. This is a perfect time to get some of those backlog tasks done that I’ve been putting off for years, like going through our financial records and cancelling subscriptions we no longer use.

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress/changes this past year: I’ve experienced quite a bit of stress for the past several months. But the good news is, I do have a lot to be grateful for. Unlike so many essential workers, Pete and I have the luxury of being able to shelter in place and stay safe. We have some amazing delivery services in town, which reduce our need to venture outside for high-risk activities. And I’m so grateful I have Pete and the kitties hunkering down with me.

Intention for the coming year: If nothing else, this past year has reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments. The quarantine has forced me to slow down and evaluate how I spend my time. Pete and I are finally taking walks! We need to keep this up. And each morning for the coming year, even as the pandemic rages on, I plan to start my day by reminding myself, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Virtual blessings

My husband Pete and I have been part of our congregation’s choir for several years, and I’ve REALLY missed it since our church stopped having in-person Sunday services.

But, if there’s a silver lining behind the quarantine we’ve been living under for the past three months, it’s that I’ve discovered some absolutely superb “virtual choirs.”

Virtual choirs are a global phenomenon in which singers or other musicians record and upload their videos from their own homes or various other separate locations. Each one of the videos is then synchronized and all are combined into one single “performance.”

Since the COVID-19 “lockdowns” began in March, Christians around the world have come together in virtual choirs to sing blessings over their communities and nations. These choirs have showed us that, while many of our church buildings may be closed, church itself is alive and well.

I’m sharing some of my favorites here.

What better hymn can one possibly ask for in a season of stress, trouble and uncertainty than A Mighty Fortress Is My God? This virtual choir piece features the performances of 176 singers and musicians from 34 countries.

The Nashville Studio Singer Community formed a virtual cell phone choir to perform It is Well With My Soul. I’ve had a special sentimental attachment to this hymn since it was sung at my mother’s funeral.

The New York City Virtual Choir and Orchestra performed another one of my personal favorites, How Can I Keep from Singing?

Choristers from 50 countries affected by COVID-19 formed a virtual choir to sing Amazing Grace in a multitude of languages. The result is … truly amazing. I could watch this one 20 times and not get tired of it.

So far, choirs from at least a couple dozen countries have sung The Blessing. Christians all over the world have gathered in virtual choirs to sing blessings on their respective communities and nations in their own languages. This has been a truly ecumenical effort — churches represented range from Catholic and Mainline Protestant to Evangelical, Pentecostal and Coptic Orthodox. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these renditions from the United Kingdom, France, Sweden and Ghana.

And this hauntingly beautiful hymn from a Middle Eastern virtual choir goes to show that a hymn need not be familiar, or even in one’s own language, to inspire. Listen to Healer all the way through — helpful English subtitles are provided — and prepare to be blown away!

Alas, Pete and I haven’t figured out the technology yet for joining any virtual choirs. However, we did manage to make this little video for our own congregation’s online service on Pentecost Sunday.

Blessings,

Some comic relief

While I’m definitely taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously — my husband and I are both considered high risk — I must admit I find it hard to resist a judicious bit of gallows humor in times like these.

Fortunately, my fellow travelers have been generating a wealth of memes to keep me chuckling and groaning while I spend way too much of my newly acquired free time on social media sites.

Here’s a baker’s dozen of my favorites so far, plus a final piece of good advice:

My fellow writers will surely relate to this one:

If we can’t find toilet paper, at least we have plenty of toilet paper memes.

What a guy …

If our pets could speak our language, I’m sure they would have words of wisdom to offer us.

The kind of people I hang out with send me stuff like this all the time:

I know the next one isn’t humor, but I love it and had to include it anyway. If only …

And finally … turns out the recommended amount of time needed to wash one’s hands thoroughly is roughly equivalent to the amount of time needed to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Our annual Christmas letter

I understand Christmas letters are considered a bit tacky in some circles – after all, they have a somewhat deserved reputation for turning into obnoxious brag-fests – but I personally love getting them. With family and friends spread out all over (Pete and I have relatives in at least a dozen different states and three different countries), Christmas letters, like Facebook, help me keep up with everyone. So Pete and I have been sending out our own annual Christmas letters for more than 30 years now. Hopefully we don’t brag too obnoxiously – except for our occasional travel adventures. 

Actually, our travel in 2019 mostly seemed to consist of trips to the emergency room. In February I landed in intensive care for massive internal bleeding caused by the blood-thinning medication I was taking. This was followed in the spring and summer by several trips to the emergency room for radiating chest pain, which the doctors now believe was caused by gallbladder attacks. Said gallbladder came out in September and I finally seem to be healing. (Knock wood!)

As if that wasn’t enough, both our kitties developed health issues this year. But so far, the special diets and medication are working and our little bandits seem to be doing well. Meanwhile, they continue to be their sweet, lovable, adorable, ornery, mischievous selves.

Which is a good thing, because this has been a sad year.

My mother passed away in September after spending several months in home hospice care and waging a valiant 60-year battle with Type 1 diabetes. It was a humbling experience to hear all the stories about her vibrant personality, hospitality and generosity from the literally hundreds of people who showed up for her visitation and funeral. She had a wide range of people who dearly loved her. It was nice to see lots of cousins we hadn’t seen in a while, even if the occasion was a sad one.

An absolutely phenomenal team of caregivers shepherded her through her final months and I will be forever grateful to Sharon, Stacy, Jessica, Debbie and Mary for their constant loving attentiveness that went way beyond the call of duty. Not to mention my sister Cindy, who took on the monumental task of supervising the support team. Here are several of these awesome ladies joining Mom and my sister for an adult slumber party complete with pink squirrels (Mom’s favorite drink) last summer.

Mom was a fun-loving, die-hard Cubs fan, so it came as no surprise when she requested that family and friends wear Cubs shirts to her visitation and funeral/celebration of life. Here are Pete and I in our his-and-hers matching shirts, which we bought just for her. The Cubs must have been playing for her, since they won 14-1 the day we said good-bye. 

We also lost a dear friend. John Knoepfle was a talented poet and storyteller who published more than two dozen books. At 96, he was still at it, working on yet another book when he wasn’t playing his harmonica. He was a terrific mentor to me in my younger years and Pete and I had the honor of helping him edit and publish the chinkapin oak, one of his earlier books. And while he lived a long, amazingly full life, we’re still going to miss him!

Fortunately, 2019 did bring more than sad news and hospital trips. There were also weddings. LOTS of weddings! Congratulations to Angie and Will, Ellie and Adam, Payton and Vero, Jacob and Sid, Anna and Eddie. Health issues prevented us from attending most of the weddings, but hopefully these newlyweds will all have marriages as wonderful and Pete’s and mine. (Have I ever said I have a fabulous husband??)

While we didn’t travel much, we did manage to see some of Pete’s cousins. We had the pleasure of visiting twice with John and Anne, who live in western North Carolina, while they were passing through the Midwest to attend a couple of the above-mentioned weddings. And we met in St. Louis with Pete’s cousin Chrissie and her husband Chris, who were in town for a WordPress meetup. Chrissie’s work as a “happiness engineer,” doing customer support for WordPress, takes her all over the country, and she’s been SO helpful to us with our blogs.

Pete and I continue to take spiritual direction with a charming – and very patient – Dominican sister. Spiritual direction doesn’t replace church. Rather, it’s a one-to-one relationship in which one person helps another grow in a personal relationship with God and sense the presence of God in everyday life. It’s been a very interesting experience for both of us, and we both blog about it. While posting articles and photos to my blog “Seriously Seeking Answers,” I’ve met some fascinating fellow bloggers who are pursuing similar journeys. Pete’s working title for his blog is “Ordinary Time” [link HERE]. As the address – ordinaryzenlutheran.com – implies, it’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. 

Pete’s historical research on Swedish immigration continues to sit on the back burner but he’s vowed to get back to it in the coming year, and I’ve promised to start in earnest writing the book I’ve been threatening to write for ages. That is, if we can tear ourselves away from our computer screens and stop arguing politics with total strangers on social media. And if we political junkies can’t stay away from the 2020 election season completely – who are we kidding?? – we at least plan to do something constructive like volunteering for a local candidate’s campaign. 

Music continues to be an important part of our lives. We’re active in our church, where we sing in the traditional choir. We also play dulcimers (mountain dulcimer for Pete and hammered dulcimer for me) with a group of musicians that gathers for jam sessions at a senior high-rise a few blocks from our house. There’s actually a bit of a “fan club” of residents who pull up chairs and listen to us play in the lobby, so it feels like we’re actually doing some social good while having a good time.

I have to admit that getting into the holiday spirit was a bit of a challenge, given the kind of year we’ve had, so that’s why I broke my usual rule of not even thinking about Christmas until after Thanksgiving and started decorating early. This seems to be working. And my Christmas cactus is faithfully blooming right on schedule.

We’re getting to an age where our idea of a wild New Year’s Eve celebration consists of supper at our favorite Indian restaurant around 6 p.m. followed by bedtime at 10. But we’ve started a new tradition in recent years of inviting friends to our house on New Year’s Day for hoppin’ john (rice and black-eyed peas), greens and lots of music. The hoppin’ john and greens are said to bring good luck and making music just seems to be a great way to start off the New Year right. 

Here’s hoping you all have a happy and healthy New Year full of grace and peace!

Blessings,