As our nation marks 600,000 lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington National Cathedral will toll its mourning bell 600 times — once for every 1,000 dead — on Thursday (June 10) starting at 5 pm ET. We toll this 12-ton bell for every funeral held at the Cathedral. Funerals mourn the loss, but they also celebrate the lives of our loved ones, and point us to the hope of resurrection. This gesture cannot replace the lives lost, but we hope it will help each American mourn the toll of this pandemic.
“Are you surprised by your own behavior and desires right now? Fighting with your partner or spouse? Pushing back against a board that wants to go back to the old organizational strategy? Crying on airplanes? Drinking again? Giving up drinking finally? Liking music you’ve never liked? Not liking the kinds of books you’ve always loved? Feeling weird in your body? Ruminating on social interactions more than ever before?
It’s not you. It’s us. It’s this moment.
We’re becoming something that we’ve never been before. Some of us are tentatively excited about this. Sort of tiptoeing into a new dance. Some of us, especially those for whom the old reality was working pretty well, are in lizard brain: GO BACK GO BACK FORGET THIS BREAKING-OPEN-AND-QUESTIONING-EVERYTHING SHIT LET’S GO BACKKKKKKKK!
But there is no “back.”
2020 changed us in fundamental ways. No matter who you are or were. This is always true—time marches forward and tweaks and transforms us along the way—but never has it been more true, in my lifetime at least, than this moment. We were someone, some neighborhood, some nation before covid hit and schools closed and bodies piled up and Breonna Taylor was murdered and we all gathered on zoom all the time and the capitol was invaded and monuments were pulled down and vaccines were invented and hoarded…
and we are now, today, someone else, some other neighborhood with different understanding of public space and belonging, some other nation that is straining to rise to its own moment rather than retreating to the shadows of a less consciousness, less thin time.
For me, I’m realizing, it feels on par with the profound transformation I experienced while becoming a mother—a before and an after, a me that was and a me that will never be again.
I used to watch my daughters sleep. Sometimes I still do. And the gratitude I feel for the miracle of their breath coming in and out, of their lungs working, of their hearts pumping blood—it’s unlike anything else. It’s desperate and deep and makes me cry just thinking about it. Just last night Stella crawled into our bed (Bad dream, mama. Bad dream.) and I lay awake at 2 in the morning and, though I knew I’d promised to be up 4 hours later for a hike, I just couldn’t stop noticing the rise and fall of her chest.
I think we are all watching ourselves breathe in the night right now. We are aware of how unpromised all of this actually is, but also exhausted from being so awake and so fucking grateful that—though so much is going wrong—we are still alive at all. Some of us are embracing the vigil, leaning towards the questions we first asked during this traumatic year: who do I actually want to be? how do I actually want to live and lead? what actually matters—not just to me, but to humanity?
And some of us wish the baby would go back to sleeping in the crib in the other room and we could compartmentalize that yes, it’s a pure and lucky miracle that our bodies work at all, that our democracy is sort of functioning again, and that we can’t think about that every moment. That we must go on with earning money and filling up our calendars and scheduling trips and feeling important and busy and mostly good. We want to return to the strategic plans we laid out in 2019 before social distancing was a household phrase or we knew just how fragile our institutions really were. This summer, we want to eat BBQ and be happy-go-lucky and vaccinate ourselves against the very vulnerability that brought us to our knees last summer.
Or maybe you want both of these things—both to return and to go forward, to regress and to progress, to deepen your relationship with the you that you first met during our pandemic year and to abandon her for a less intense, less humbled version of yourself. I get that, too. Somedays I want both, too.
But the rub of it is: there is no going back. As Octavia Butler wrote in Parable of the Sower: “All that you touch you Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God Is Change.”
The ground will keep shifting, even if you build a monument to your own safety atop it. The chest will keep rising and falling, until it doesn’t, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. The only thing to do is keep welcoming the beautiful unknown, however terrifying. Burn the old plans. Keep loving and questioning. As Parker Palmer wrote: “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
The afternoon before 9/11.